Newsflash: you no longer have 12, 24 or 48 hours to craft a response to a crisis. #AmazonFAIL took less than 40 hours to go from initial blog post to the print edition of the WSJ.

In the “olden days” (which is when the structure of most Communications departments was configured) you did have time. You bought time as the reporter researched the story, the facts were checked, the copy edited, the plates made, the printing presses started, the newspapers trimmed and folded, loaded on trucks and delivered to your door. You literally had 12 to 48 hours. At least.

Now? Your big, bad news is 140 characters away from becoming public (seconds) or perhaps a blog post away (30 minutes, or the time it takes to write a coherent email).

Can you craft an adequate response to an issue in that timeframe? Can you call up all your stakeholders and put something together that is accurate and meaningful? That addresses the issue? Not likely. And, as I posted about #AmazonFAIL, that will not change. You still need time to craft your message. But the point is, you don’t always have to have a message crafted in order to start responding.

We’ve had a fair bit of experience with large-scale digital crisis communications in our work with Ford Motor Company, among others, over the last few years. Here are some things we’ve observed:

1. You don’t have to have all the answers. But you DO have to have social media channels to let people know that you’re looking into it, and keep them informed of your progress as you work through what’s really going on. Depending on the issue, that in itself can start to calm things down (if you are credible). In one SMG client example, a very large retailer made a significant change for which they were being roundly criticized on Twitter. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a Twitter account. They do now – and use it to respond to issues like this as well as customer complaints. As you’d expect, it’s become a wonderful “early warning” system that has now been integrated into the Communications department workflow.

2. You don’t need to respond to everyone. Shock! Horror! It’s true – not everyone has equal influence, and not everyone’s opinion needs responding to. When you’re dealing with something on the scale of, let’s say, the Automotive Industry Congressional Hearings (for which we ran an aggressive story correction/digital crisis response plan for Ford) the sheer volume of posts means you can’t (and don’t need to) respond to everything. Pick a natural cutoff and work up from there. It’s also really important that your efforts are integrated with MSM crisis communications – the wide distribution of misinformation in a wire story, for example, can trigger hundreds of blog posts that need correction. Look for the hubs of content, both MSM and digital, and ensure you respond there first, otherwise you’re playing Internet Whack-A-Mole, which is very time consuming and hard to get in front of.

3. Social media doesn’t always matter. Again – Shock! Horror! I’ve posted about this before – and I’ll post about it again. Unless an issue makes the transition to a mainstream media or digital platform with a massive audience – it will not gain widespread traction in a short period of time. Numbers on most platforms are too small (if you think your Twitter audience is 30 million, then the number of people who read this blog is about 197 million – that’s how many people are on the Internet in North America). In contrast, a single segment on the ABC World News reaches about 7.5 million people. I’m not saying that TV and Twitter have similar “quality of attention”, but that gives you some context in terms of pure number of eyeballs and reach.

#AmazonFAIL and the Domino’s issues both hit mainstream media. This happened because both were also viral events – that sharing is what pushed the volume to the point where MSM journalists, many of whom regularly troll social media communities for scoops – picked up on them. They also would have been significant stories last week, next month or next year – both were very serious.

4. Mainstream media are dramatically inflating digital crises. Two recent examples of this: Motrin Moms and Starbucks #top3percent. In both cases, ultimately the story was that Someone! On the Internet! Was Saying Something Bad! In six months I guarantee we’ll see less MSM coverage of issues like this because the “company screwed up in social media” story will be old news. If the issue is real, it will build for a considerable time online, and really, if you’re on the ball – you’ll know about it before it becomes a real problem. Also? I’m not sure that Motrin Moms had any effect on the sales of Motrin whatsoever (which is the real test of how damaging an issue is), unlike the Domino’s crisis, which had a big impact (and we can all understand why). Proof to the contrary very welcome!

In conclusion: really serious brand-damaging issues need a wider audience to have an effect in the very short term. Social media simply bubbles them up.

If you’d like to find out more about what a good digital crisis communications plan looks like, Leona Hobbs, SMG’s Director of Communications, will be running workshops on how to prepare a Digital Crisis Communications Plan at the Social Media for Government Conference in Ottawa September 29th-October 2nd, 2009 and the Crisis Communications for Government conference being held in Washington, DC later in 2009.


  1. Mike Prosceno

    Great post Maggie — Wish I had written it.

  2. Maggie Fox Author

    @mike – thanks; now you don’t have to!

  3. Great article. I wondered about the impact of social media when I saw 3,000 tweets about Flight 1549 before US Air even had time to update their Website and when dissecting the role of the viral video from the New Year’s Eve BART shooting and the ensuing riots. Used to be we had a head start when dealing with crises. Now, the public has already formed an opinion on “what just happened” before the corporate communications department even know there’s a problem. I’d be curious to learn what sort of technologies you’re using to monitor the Twittersphere and the Web for what’s being said about your clients.

  4. Maggie Fox Author

    @Bill – Thanks! And as it happens I wrote an article earlier this year about flight 1549, you can check it out here.

    As far as which tools we use, there are lots that are commercially available – we use Radian6, and layer in a couple of custom pieces when we’re dealing with really high-volume issues. Also – there’s always a person involved as well to make the final call. Automated tonality is directional at best, and isn’t appropriate when you’re dealing with a digital crisis.

  5. Good points Maggie. To your point crafting an adequate response in 30 mins or less, I say that’s the reason for lots of PRE-crisis work. Do whatever you can to come up with worst-case sceanrios and then write responses to all of them! The more bizarre the better (the scenarios, or worst things, that is, that could happen to my brand, my company, my industy) and then do a retreat or at least an exercise to test and validate the messages.

  6. Maggie Fox Author

    @Jane absolutely – and that underscores the need to ensure that your digital crisis communications plan is a living, changing document – the Internet never sleeps!

  7. Maggie, great stuff. I’m particularly passionate about #1. Responding isn’t always solving. It’s about being present, available, and accessible to people to let them know they’ve been heard. And people in general are more patient when they’re being communicated with, even if it takes a bit to get to a real resolution or answer.

    Thanks for bringing some solid levity into the crisis communication discussion in social media.

    Amber Naslund
    Director of Community, Radian6

  8. Hi Maggie – great thoughts. I would add one more. I believe the definition of what actually constitutes a crisis is changing. Social media is changing the game to a point where inappropriate brand engagement with consumers can cause real issues for a company that traditionally would not have been labeled a crisis, but could have the same impact over time.

    Mike Spataro
    SVP, Client Strategy
    Visible Technologies

  9. Maggie Fox Author

    @Amber – thanks very much for your comments, and as you know, Radian6 is one of our vendor partners, so welcome to the conversation!

    @Mike – thanks for the feedback, but I’d like to respectfully disagree; I think the climate in which “company screwed up in social media!” is a story worth reporting on will shift over time. As we’ve seen again and again, issues only become acute brand-damaging problems when they cross over to MSM. In the absence of that interest, companies that are listening should be able to deal with issues before they become significant. They’ll also have more time to do so.

  10. Maggie,

    I’m not one to suggest at all that the world starts and stops with conversations in social media or whatever happens online, but if you are saying that the only way an issue becomes a crisis for a brand is when it reaches MSM, that seems a bit odd to me. Perhaps I’m not understanding your point.


  11. Maggie Fox Author

    @mike – the important word in that sentence is “acute”. As I said in my post, “Unless an issue makes the transition to a mainstream media or digital platform with a massive audience – it will not gain widespread traction in a short period of time.

    In the absence of media interest in “company screwed up in social media” stories, firms will have more time to deal with most of these kinds of relatively low-intensity issues, provided they are listening appropriately.

  12. Hi Maggi! It’s a fact that speed is the key to social media understanding. Nowadays; what happens online, happens on real life.One tweet can be enough to launch a huge gossip and generate negative buzz on the Net, right? Digital crisis can happen to anyone, and never is too early to plan, don’t you think? Btw, if you want to keep discussing this topic, just check my article “Social Media in Crisis Management: The sharp click”. See ya!

Trackbacks for this post

  1. What Does it Take to be a “Top 10″ Social Media Speaker? | Technically Women

Comments are closed.