How companies should navigate social media in a crisis

How companies should navigate social media in a crisis

Dunkin' Donuts, Southwest Airlines shine on Twitter during Boston bombings

Companies using social networks like Twitter and Facebook need to face what to do during a national crisis like the Boston Marathon bombing.

Do you tweet or post a statement about the crisis, continue on with your normal social media postings, or do you keep silent?

It's a tricky question. To answer it, companies may want to look to Dunkin' Donuts and Southwest Airlines.

On April 15, when two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Dunkin' Donuts, a favorite New England haunt, tweeted, "Our thoughts are w/ the victims & everyone affected by the explosions at the Boston Marathon. We grieve with all of Boston & the country."

Coffee chain Dunkin' Donuts said just the right things in tweets after the Boston Marathon bombings.

And when the city of Boston was under lockdown and businesses and restaurants were shuttered as law enforcement searched for the bombing suspects, some Dunkin' Donuts shops stayed open at the request of local police. The coffee shops kept law enforcement and first responders fueled up with free coffee and food.

After the company's initial tweet, the company stayed silent for three days. Then the coffee chain tweeted, "We're proud to announce a $100,000 donation to the One Fund Boston to help those impacted during this difficult time." The company then linked to a press release about Dunkin' Donuts shops throughout New England collecting donations from customers.

Southwest Airlines tweeted on the day of the bombings, "Our #Luv goes to Boston. We are accommodating affected travelers at no extra cost." Then the company linked to a page with rebooking information.

"I can tell you these two did a tremendous job," said Alex Hinojosa, vice president of media operations for EMSI Public Relations. "They do what I always preach to anyone in social media marketing, be a person. What is the natural thing for you to do? If you want to offer help, then that's the first thing you do."

Hinojosa and industry analysts all said companies need to be careful about what they say. Any social media message needs to be well thought out and it needs to be a reflection of the company and its brand.

"I think it depends on the company's relationship to the people, or community or city involved in the crisis," said Brad Shimmin, an analyst with Current Analysis. "Companies are like people. They can stand for something and have an opinion. They can be a driver for change. Crises like the ones we've seen the past year are good examples of how companies can behave like people and help out."

He added that companies can use Facebook or Twitter to play an active role during a crisis, such as the marathon bombings, a deadly hurricane, or the explosion that killed multiple people in West Texas. Companies can point followers to useful information, such as where to go to make a donation to the Red Cross, for instance.

"Companies can have a lot of pull and broad reach," said Shimmin. "There's no reason why they should sit idly by."

However, it would be better for a company to go silent on social networks during a crisis than to continue to tweet or post about a new ad campaign or, even worse, say something inappropriate.

One of the basic tenets of marketing is that you don't want to be talking when no one is listening or when you're talking is going to upset your audience," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "This means you don't roll out a big new marketing campaign during a time when your market is focused exclusively on something else that's more important.

"One of the advantages of social media marketing is that it can be changed or postponed very quickly and at little cost," he added.

Going silent on social media is better than continuing to spew out a previously scheduled sales promotion. Companies that do that risk looking insensitive and uncaring.

Hinojosa also said companies should never try to be funny during a time of crisis. Sometimes it's tempting to want to break the mood with something funny, but it nearly always comes off as insensitive.

Analysts also stressed the importance of not appearing to use a crisis to garner publicity. If there's no reason for a company to be making a comment -- if the crisis is not affecting your community or your customers, for example -- then think about not commenting. Also don't make a statement of support and then link to a product announcement or a sales pitch.

Also, make sure it doesn't appear that your company is trying to hijack a media trend or trying to draw attention to itself based on someone else's bad news.

"Companies should really look at Dunkin' Donuts and how they handled it," said Olds. "They've done two, no, three great things here. First, they're truly doing something to help with the $100,000 donation. Second, they have shown their community of customers that they care about the market they serve and they're a positive member of that community. They've also given their employees something to be proud of, which is hard to measure on the bottom line, but which pays dividends."

To be able to handle a crisis well in the public eye takes work and sit-down planning. Companies that have a social media presence need to have a social media crisis management plan.

"You need to think about internal communications and external communications," said Brian Blau, an analyst with Gartner Inc. "Companies need to respond in real time. Companies also have to be careful to not say something that will inflame the situation or propagate false information."

For a crisis management plan, companies should consider these questions:

  • Who will decide what to tweet or post? Is this a PR manager's job or the CEO's?
  • When is it appropriate to comment? Should you tweet your support or wait till the crisis is over, social channels have quieted down and all the information is in?
  • " If you're going to drop a link in your post or tweet, make sure it's to something helpful, as Southwest Airlines did with the link to flight rebooking information.
  • If you have automated tweets set up to come out during a crisis, cancel them.
  • If your company generally sends out a few tweets or posts a day, consider staying mostly silent, other than sending a message or two of support.
  • Don't stray from what your company is about. If your company sells widgets, don't get into a political debate about gun rights or immigration.
  • Decide how big a crisis or event needs to be before you put a crisis plan into action.
  • Be genuine. If it is something that you truly feel, even if it's sharing feelings of sadness, that's OK.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is

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