When Bad Things Happen in 140 Characters

When bad things happen in 140 characters

When Asiana Airlines flight 214 crashed at San Francisco International Airport on July 6, 2013, passenger David Eun climbed from the wreckage, snapped a photo on his phone and posted a message on Twitter.

“I just crash landed at SFO. Tail ripped off. Most everyone seems fine. I’m ok. Surreal,” Eun wrote. His post with a photo of the smoldering jet was retweeted 32,789 times during the next few hours.

It took Asiana Airlines five hours to issue an official news release. That’s not too bad considering the company’s headquarters is in Seoul, where it was 3:25 a.m. when the jet crashed. Corporate executives had to be awakened. Facts had to be gathered. Press releases drafted, edited and approved by legal. But in terms of the 24-hour news cycle and the social media world, five hours feels like five months. Asiana Airlines also posted its release on Twitter, where it was retweeted 509 times.

Not every company will face the kind of crisis that confronted Asiana Airlines, but there’s an 80 percent chance that in any five-year window there will be a month when a company loses 20 percent of its value, according to an Oxford Metrica Reputation Review.

So with this kind of peril lurking, you’d expect companies would make it a priority to be prepared. Not so. A survey of marketing executives by Eric Mower + Associates and B2B magazine found that 57 percent said their companies do not have a crisis plan. Even fewer conduct preparedness drills. And even more confounding in today’s digital age, a PRSA study found more than half the companies that do have a plan have not updated it to consider social media.

The longer business leaders wait to respond to bad news, the more rumors spread, uncertainty prevails and crises deepen. That’s even more the case with social media, where bad things can happen in 140 characters.

The old rules of crisis communications still apply, but now the pace is much quicker and any individual — customers, shareholders, employees and competitors — can speak with a public voice. There are new tools that businesses can use to protect their reputations.

  • Be Ready — Do you have a crisis plan and have you conducted drills so key employees know their roles? Does your company have a “dark site” that can go live in an instant to provide critical information? What kind of early-warning systems have you established to sound the alarm?
  • Be Active  What is the state of your presence on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms? A crisis is no time to start establishing social media credibility.
  • Be Fast  The longer it takes your company to act, the greater the chance your key audiences will hear about your crisis from unfriendly sources. Prolonged periods of silence increase the odds that you will lose control of the situation.
  • Be Factual — Facts are your friends. Facts become tools that can replace rumors and misinformation on social media feeds. Don’t hoard facts for your next press conference. Use social media to quickly share what you know.
  • Be Vigilant  In a crisis you need people assigned to gathering facts from traditional sources, internally and externally. You also need to actively monitor news coverage and social media. These sources help you understand the reality and the perception of the situation. Both can be damaging.
  • Be Coordinated  Having a prepared team — including operations, legal and communication staff — that works together saves enormous amounts of time and effort. This is no time to protect turf. Your goal is to reduce the crisis lifecycle and the damage to your organization.

Companies know the marketing power of the Internet, which forever changed the sales process. Now, in a digital age, it’s time to understand the role of social media during a crisis.