Kim Benjamin
Apr 23, 2013

Crisis management: Social media teams prepare for the worst

The need to mitigate online reputational damage at speed sees some brands building their own in-house response teams.

Crisis management: Social media teams prepare for the worst

Telecommunications provider SingTel received less than favourable feedback last month on its Facebook page, in response to a video on YouTube that put its 4G network speed to the test against extreme sport parkour. Many users responded on Facebook with rants and complaints about the brand’s 4G promotion, and used this to highlight problems with the quality of Singtel’s overall service. 

The brand, which also has a presence on Twitter, does not outsource its social media management to a third party and uses an in-house team to monitor and respond to comments. While many PR agencies have developed crisis management practices, Singtel is one of several brands in Asia, including Cathay Pacific Airways and FedEx, which have chosen to build and train their own social media teams in-house to handle moments of crisis. 

This raises the question of whether in-house social media teams are equipped to handle a crisis? 

Simon Kemp, managing director at Singapore-based agency We Are Social, believes there are many in-house teams that would struggle to manage a social media crisis mainly due to limitations in terms of capabilities and time. Managing a social media crisis, he says, requires a particularly open and transparent approach, and many in-house teams have not yet developed these skills.

It’s also important to consider that some situations can become a crisis because of the way an organisation acts or reacts. Alastair Bullock, head of communications at World Wildlife Fund, Hong Kong, who was previously the global digital and social media marketing manager at Cathay Pacific Airways, believes that many brands don’t know the difference between an issue and a crisis. 

“Most social media crises happen due to the way a person or organisation acts,” he says. “An in-house team is only as good as the leader and training available. 

“Having the facts, being truthful and acting appropriately in a timely fashion will always be the foundations of managing any crisis.”

When the Singapore transport system (SMRT), suffered a series of breakdowns towards the end of 2011, it responded to the public backlash by setting up a Twitter account. However, it took three breakdowns and four days to do this, and when its Twitter profile initially stated that updates were available only between 9am and 6pm, this led to further criticism of the brand.

John Kerr, managing director at digital marketing agency Zeno Group says that the SMRT response was the result of a lack of preparedness. 

“This is one area where the right agency partner can play a significant role,” he says. “Agencies can partner to help train and prepare organisations so they have a team of smart and agile people ready to respond on the front lines.”

While crisis management should not be the main motivation behind brands establishing in-house social media teams, it is certainly an important factor. 

Social media offers a wide variety of opportunities to drive ROI, and managing the risks associated with potential crises is only a small part of the rationale for setting up a social media team. 

Handling a social media incident also requires a different set of skills—PR tends to focus more on presenting the best possible side of the situation, whereas social media management is more about engaging the various parties within the crisis and ensuring these people all feel their concerns and needs have been acknowledged and are being addressed.

“Social media can be a very important channel for brands and social media teams can play an important role in managing them, but for many brands which are active on social media platforms, it is a means to an end and, more often than not, that end is revenue,” says James Hacking, vice-president at agency BlueCurrent Hong Kong. 

In times of crisis, it is not surprising that those people who want answers would rather interact directly with those who work for the company in question. 

Brands such as FedEx and Cathay may have crisis planning and preparation embedded deep in their DNA, because of the relatively high-risk profile associated with the business. The realities of headcounts and internal investment budgets at most brands, however, mean that many currently outsource their social media requirements—including crisis management—to agencies. 

The size of any team is often tied to the size of a brand’s community. In many cases, the more channels being managed, the more resources needed to respond to a crisis.

Whether a brand manages social media crises in-house or via an agency, it is important to establish clear principles and procedures with well-defined roles and responsibilities within the organisation, agency or across both, so an issue can be dealt with effectively. A good first step in crisis training is to bring community managers together with other key stakeholders in the organisation, including PR, legal and marketing, to talk through some possible scenarios and begin developing a decision tree that can be quickly activated during a crisis.

Ultimately, brands that want to use social media most effectively are investing resources into listening to negative comments and addressing them not only on social channels, but more importantly, at a business level, so that they can become better at what they do.


AGENCY COMMENT Crisis takes manpower

by Antoine Calendrier

In Asia, there are a few companies with dedicated in-house social media teams, but whether they are equipped to handle crises in-house depends on the team set-up and commitment to resources. Crisis takes manpower, which most companies do not have. Ford is an example in that it has a social media set-up, but uses an agency for the actual crisis.

Having said that, a crisis requires quick co-ordination between departments, therefore some level of in-house management is needed. Whether a company takes crisis management completely in-house depends on its size and frequency of possible crises.

In any case, getting external advice in those situations that trigger people’s emotions is never a bad idea. Having a third party provide objective analysis is valuable; an agency is able to bring broad experience to help in determining the right path and an agency can provide the resources required for monitoring and response more cost effectively.

Though these advantages are similar to when PR agencies are dealing with the media, the difference is the potential speed and scope of a crisis, which requires a large scaling up of hands on deck.

Today, proper crisis communications entails being able to have a credible voice within online conversations and express point of views that can counterbalance negative stories arising, what we call ‘narrative disruption’ management.

It is all about getting the company’s story back on track and properly engaging with online stakeholders.

Antoine Calendrier is general manager, China, at Waggener Edstrom

 

CLIENT COMMENT The best training is the culture created in times of peace 

by Simon Large

Many traditional PR firms are transitioning into social media experts, through recruitment, as well as the acquisition of the necessary scanning and monitoring capability.

In this way, they can provide the scale and resource that smaller companies cannot afford to do in-house.

Social media crises often require a lot of scalability and expertise when they arise. This is needed quickly, as these crises can be unpredictable. In this sense, there is a logical role for agencies to play.

At Cathay Pacific, we do not currently use a social media agency, but it is something that we regularly review.

In the more traditional sense, it is also very easy to argue that ‘communications’ is more important today than ever.

The media and channels may have multiplied, but the fundamental skills of good communications remain the same. So again, many of the advisory roles of a PR firm remain intact and as relevant as ever.

The best ‘training’ is the culture that we create in times of quiet — when there is no crisis.
If the culture is one that encourages transparency, honesty and authenticity in communications generally (without obviously revealing confidential information), then most audiences will respond more positively and sympathetically when the inevitable crisis arrives. 
It is about building up trust over the long term.

Simon Large is general manager, marketing, loyalty programme & CRM at Cathay Pacific

 

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