Crises prompt companies to rein in social media tactics

When launching a new product or engaging consumers, social media is a necessity for brands and businesses. Companies and their agency partners, however, are taking a more cautious approach to this forum when it comes to issues and crises, especially in heavily regulated industries such as financial services.

When launching a new product or engaging consumers, social media is a necessity for brands and businesses. Companies and their agency partners, however, are taking a more cautious approach to this forum when it comes to issues and crises, especially in heavily regulated industries such as financial services. In recent months, both Discovery Communications and the United Egg Producers trade group used social media sparingly during crisis situations.

Discovery, which has a robust social media presence, took a step back from Twitter and Facebook during a crisis at its headquarters on September 1, when a gunman entered the building. And United Egg Producers, representing egg farmers, used social media as a one-way communications tool around the recall that happened in August, rather than the two-way strategy generally preferred by companies.

Chris Myles, SVP at GolinHarris, the AOR for United Egg Producers, which has an in-house team of nine, says: "During the first few days of the crisis, we weren't immediately engaging in dialogue on the websites or social media. We were just using that as an effective one-way transmission to push the information out."

The egg group and its agency were in the midst of revamping the website and social media accounts for the Egg Safety Center, a consumer education program that was part of the American Egg Board until it transferred to United Egg Producers at the start of this year. The timing of the recall also impacted social media outreach, as the @EggSafety Twitter account did not launch until August 20, so the organization used @UEPCertified and encouraged consumers to visit EggSafety.org for more information.

"That was definitely a strategic decision to not engage too deeply in conversation," adds Myles. "It would have been time intensive and wouldn't have helped with our number-one goal of removing eggs from the marketplace and alerting consumers they may have tainted eggs."

Krista Eberle, director of food safety programs for United Egg Producers who also oversees the Egg Safety Center, says the organization directed consumers to its website, where it was able to post longer, more detailed updates.

"The website did have an area where you could ask questions," she says. "We answered those. But given the sheer volume, it would not have been possible to answer every single social media request."

Consumers expect companies to communicate through social media about crises, recalls, and traditional news, so corporate communications teams must take the lead in social media outreach, notes Rachelle Spero, a director at Brunswick Group who focuses on social media and digital.

"Things are taken out of context so easily on Twitter and Facebook and a lot of gossip starts as a result," she says. "That may be why some companies recommend not engaging. It depends on the situation because the story is more complex than 140 characters."

Established presence

If a company wants to use social media as another outreach tool in a crisis, it must already have a solid presence there to succeed.

"We counsel clients to familiarize themselves with communities interested in their business and related issues," says Jeff Porter, who, as VP at APCO Worldwide, specializes in online communication. "It helps their idea of how to judge a situation."

Spero agrees, while emphasizing the advantages of already being active in the space.

"Social media can be used from a corporate standpoint for so much," she says. "It should be part of the existing infrastructure and embedded into every form of a company's communications: corporate, customer service, marketing, public affairs, or CSR."

DIGITAL AND SOCIAL MEDIA'S ROLE IN CRISES

Twitter

For real-time outreach and conversation, Twitter is helpful, particularly if people are talking about the news on the site, as they were during the Discovery situation

Facebook

As a community-based site, Facebook allows a company to bring together interested parties and engage their community, as well as post news

Blogs and corporate websites

Every Twitter account and Facebook page should link to a company blog or website, which can host more in-depth information and provide a permanent link

LinkedIn

Often overlooked in social media outreach, LinkedIn can be used to connect with employees when dealing with a crisis or business issue

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