Social media has completely changed how a crisis unfolds in the public eye.

The recent BA aircraft emergency landing at Heathrow was a national news story from the moment it happened.  The landing was filmed by bystanders, and meanwhile passengers on board filmed the engine cover flipping open, and shared it live.

British Airways Emergency Landing

A crisis now breaks on news sites, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, blogs, forums, TV and YouTube. The first reporters to any crisis scene are citizens armed with smartphones and a Twitter account. The grainy pictures or shaky video of a breaking disaster become the defining images of those events. The first videos to emerge of the devastating tornadoes in Oklahoma, or the Tsunami in Japan, were taken on mobile phones. The news of the Hudson river air landing was broken to the world by a camera phone picture on Twitter.

There’s no time to formulate a strategy to deal with social media when a crisis breaks. You have to have one already in place. In a crisis, you have to think quickly, and act quickly. Consumers expect a response in 15 minutes on Twitter, and an hour on Facebook. That’s rarely enough time to get a corporate statement approved by a legal team.

In a crisis, clear, concise messaging (developed in advance if possible) is really important. When you hand over your message to the public, you can’t control what happens to it. Your message will develop and change as it’s passed around in conversation. The clearer it is, the better its chance of survival.

Talking to a customer direct, as social media allows us to do, needs a completely different language from the indirect conversation carried through media programmes or ad campaigns. In times of trouble, everything we say on social media should inform, build trust, and be honest and open.

But the crux of handling a social media crisis successfully is good preparation.  The following can really help:

Manage your reputation to see you through the crisis. The reputation you have when you go into the crisis, is the one that will see you through it. If you have loyal customers and fans, they will defend you and support you through the bad times.

Rehearse a social media crisis. If you can rehearse a crisis, you can experiment. Social media simulations mean you can make mistakes in a controlled environment, rather than with the world watching; and train your crisis teams to do the best job possible.

In times of crisis, we turn back to what we know, and rehearsal is key to success. Our armed forces know this: in the most extreme situations, your reactions will be dictated by what you’ve learned to do automatically, through endless drill, rehearsal, preparation and discipline.

We may not be able to manage how an issue breaks. But we can control how we respond.

Kate Hartley is a co-creator of a social media crisis simulator with social media agency, eModeration. To find out more, contact Kate via her Twitter handle or LinkedIn profile.

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