We could keep using the word “unprecedented” when referring to the global public health crisis in which we find ourselves.
But ultimately, whether or not a crisis of this magnitude could have been seen coming ‘round the bend or whether it’s been seen before has little to no bearing on this fact:
You will manage social media through a crisis of some kind.
Obviously, we’re smack in the middle of “a crisis of some kind,” but the point is that, even if this is the first crisis in which you’ve had to manage social media, it certainly will not be the last.
Being in “crisis mode” means that you and your marketing team may have to rethink your entire game plan in order to avoid being seen as mum, tone-deaf, or worse, like you are exploiting a crisis for your brand.
While we don’t necessarily know how long this particular crisis will be ongoing, there are a few general rules to adhere to when your city, state, nation, or the whole world, is confronted with the next one.
It’s best to have a plan of action in place right away so that you and your team can keep your brand moving forward, even in the midst of tragedy or uncertainty.
1. Take a Deep Breath… Then Start Your Damage Control
Words like “tragedy” and “crisis” don’t exactly inspire feelings of happiness or even comfort.
So the most important thing you can do for yourself and for your brand is to first take a deep breath.
When devastating news strikes, or when the immediate future feels a bit more uncertain, remember that you and your team are all humans before brand employees.
Take a moment to breathe and acknowledge your feelings; allowing yourself a brief moment to react will be better for your long-term actions.
The other advantage of starting with a deep breath is this: Mistakes are made in panic. (Ask me how I know!)
If you aren’t acknowledging your human side, it is all that much more difficult to anticipate the responses from the humans in your audience.
When we move straight from “breaking news” to “panicked damage control,” we also risk breaking everything else around us in the panic.
Don’t be the person that posts a rapid-fire social media response to news that isn’t accurate, or one that amplifies panic or seizes “opportunity.”
Breathe first, then act.
Once you’ve taken your deep breath, look at the situation from 10,000 feet.
Resist an immediate response that hasn’t been vetted by your leadership team.
If you are the leadership team, make sure someone else reviews and provides feedback on your response before you post anything at all.
Staying briefly silent so that you can become clear on an appropriate response will always be better than a hasty post for the sake of posting, particularly if it could be seen as misinformation or exploiting a tragedy.
While you’re getting clarity on an official response, do a thorough review of every organic or paid post you have currently running or scheduled to run in the next 48 hours.
Did a post or an ad just launch?
Delete or pause it until you have a better handle of the situation.
Ads should likely be put on hold for at least 24 hours to avoid becoming the tone-deaf hashtag getting dragged on Twitter for advertising during a crisis.
Move your scheduled posts to drafts for the next 48 hours while you collect more information and determine the best course of action.
Why only 48 hours?
Because each crisis is completely different.
We currently find ourselves in a global pandemic with several states (and countries) in complete lockdown, but stopping everything for the next quarter doesn’t do anyone any good while you’re in an information-gathering stage.
Not every crisis will be months-long; many situations may only last a day, two days, a week.
Do immediate damage control by shutting things down for 48 hours so that you can spend that time evaluating the situation: how long your brand may need to respond, and take your strategy from there.
You may not be good to run as normal after 48 hours, but this will at least buy you time to figure it out.
2. Ask Yourself (& Your Brand) a Few Questions
Now that your ads and posts are paused for the next two full days, it’s time to carve out an appropriate response.
It’s best to have a framework before the crisis about:
- Who your brand is.
- What your audience needs.
- How to go about crafting a fitting answer to the situation at hand.
Always ask yourself these questions:
Does Our Voice Even Matter Right Now?
Because we are planning for unforeseen events, this is a question you will need to answer for your brand as a potential crisis arises.
- Do people really need to hear from us?
- Is anyone truly asking themselves how, say, an eco-friendly kitchen utensil manufacturer, is responding to this situation?
If you find yourself unable to make a compelling case that your audience absolutely must hear from you or is eagerly awaiting your official response to current events, it may be best to say nothing at all, especially in the first 12 to 24 hours after the news has broken.
There will be a lot of voices in the conversation:
- Is your brand’s voice going to be truly helpful or just a distraction?
- Could your voice, at this moment, be seen as an attempt to put yourself at the center of a tragedy that doesn’t involve you?
If you don’t believe your brand’s voice truly fits, but you must say something or are receiving pressure from your leadership to do so, wait a full day before offering up sympathies, condolences, or thoughts in the wake of the crisis.
Keep it brief and, whatever you do, make sure you don’t make it about you.
How Can Our Brand Help?
It’s possible that your brand really is one from which audiences are awaiting a response.
In this case, you’ll first want to wait on an official response from your leadership team.
Do not attempt, as enticing as it may be, to respond to people individually until you have that official response in hand.
Social media gaffes are often blamed on “bad interns” and one way to avoid being pictured that way is to make sure that, in the wake of tragedy, your next moves are approved by the people in charge.
Your brand may also fall somewhere in the middle: It’s not at the center of the crisis, but also, it’s not totally on the outskirts, either.
- Is it possible to donate time, volunteers, products, or money?
- Could you fundraise from your audience to help victims, families, or frontline workers?
Be wary of “fundraisers” or “donations” that require purchases from your company, unless all proceeds or profits are being donated from those purchases.
People are wise to strategies that look like a company wants to profit in order to do the right thing.
3. Check Your Tone
It’s not just what you say and when you say it when it comes to using social media in the middle of a crisis event: it’s how you say it as well.
Crises are not great times for jokes, memes, or GIFs, especially within that initial window immediately following the crisis.
Even if using humor is your personal coping mechanism, or if undying positivity is how you approach the world, be careful of projecting it onto your brand strategy.
Perhaps the crisis event looks a lot more like a mid- to long-term pandemic, or perhaps your geographic location or demographic is disproportionately impacted by the crisis for longer than the rest of the world.
In this case, you may want to use your social media platform for educational messaging through comprehensively vetted publications, or provide information on support or resources.
You can also use this platform in the longer-term to lift your audience’s mood.
Global and even domestic crises can have a serious traumatic effect on people, whether that looks like anxiety, grief, or just the general uneasiness that accompanies greater uncertainty.
It’s OK to use your platform to share positive messaging, too.
4. Whatever You Do, Don’t Make It Worse & Don’t Get in the Way
A crisis of any kind is in motion in the news cycle, it’s critical to remember that, as things are unfolding, information is changing.
Do not be the brand that stokes fear by sharing information that has not been properly fact-checked.
Do not feed into panic by posting articles that could contain false or outdated information, or fear-mongering.
Bad information is much worse than no information at all.
Additionally, do not use a crisis hashtag if you are not providing critical resources, support, or information for people impacted.
Just because people are going to be, for instance, staying at home in quarantine, it does not mean that your spa facial brand should use a #COVID19 hashtag.
Save the crisis hashtags for brands, publications, and government agencies or front-line workers to communicate critical information in a time of need.
Do not use a tragedy hashtag to express condolences or support.
Not only does it drown out information and resources that are actually important, it also looks like your brand is making a messaging play in a time of tragedy.
A crisis event is not a marketing opportunity, period.
5. Know When It’s Time to Go Back to Business as Usual
Even in a global crisis that is ongoing, similar to this pandemic, at some point, you will need to return to business as usual.
That doesn’t mean capitalizing on a tragedy or turning a crisis into a profit opportunity, but it does mean that audiences will grow weary of the news. They just want some semblance of normalcy back in their lives.
Your brand can go back to its normal routine, but delicately.
You may need to reevaluate your approach, your creative, your copy, to make sure that there isn’t anything tone-deaf or inappropriate in light of the crisis.
Be vigilant about the news and be ready to pivot quickly if there are new developments in an ongoing crisis, but know that you’re not stuck in an eternal limbo with your strategy.
Not every crisis will look like this one:
- There will be events with more immediate needs.
- Events that apply to your brand in a greater or less significant way.
- Events that require your silence or your official responses or your help.
No matter what the crisis looks like, you can have the basics of a plan put together to help avoid becoming an ironic hashtag in the middle of an emergency.
Approach your audience with human-centric responses and content.
They may not necessarily remember how their favorite dog bed company handled the crisis if you handle it well, but remember: it wasn’t about you, anyway.