Monday, February 15, 2010

Suggested Guidelines for Crisis Communication and Social Media

Social internet media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) need to be treated as an organic and integral part of an organization’s media strategy. The internet feeds on information, and the worst thing an organization can do in that environment—as with traditional media outlets—is to go silent during periods of crisis or uncertainty. The information needs to keep flowing, even if the information is “We’re still working on an answer.” Public affairs, marketing, and/or outreach personnel need to be kept in the loop as subject matter experts and advisors for handling public perception, regardless of the nature of the crisis or uncertainty surrounding it.

In addition to external communications, extra thought also needs to be given to internal communications—what you are saying to your employees. The best thing you can do is to instill a feeling that “We’re all in this together.” The best way to do that is to keep your employees as informed as you can about what is being done to address the crisis at hand and let them be your organization’s advocates out in the social media world. If you cannot divulge the specific decisions being discussed, then you need to at least explain what the process is—what some of the factors are that must guide your decisions, and how long you expect the process to take. Again, responsible transparency goes a long way toward building trust, both internally and externally.

Lastly, it is important that employees understand their rights and freedoms regarding social media: what can they say? Where can they say it? What can they do to help the organization during this period of crisis? Obviously they must follow guidelines regarding the use of information technology resources and company time, but once they’re on their own, they should be made to feel empowered to be advocates for the organization. By emphasizing what employees cannot do or say, you open the door to passive-aggressive behavior, as employees get the impression that they cannot say anything. And in this new media environment, even the impression of inadvertently or blatantly suppressing personal opinions produces two negative effects: it makes your organization look like it is trying to cover things up and that you are being tyrannical over your employees’ free speech rights.

It is very easy to share good news and progress on the internet when things are going well. The true test of an organization’s public communications on the internet is when things are not going well but the need for information continues. Silence is no longer an option.

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