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Ready or not, social media is here – actually has been for some time now.  From desktops, laptops, tablets and smart phones, millions of people engage with social media outlets every day to instantly share views on just about everything – from where to shop, who to vote for, and how they feel about businesses and their products, particularly when things don’t go right.  While companies wrestle with complex issues of operating in this vast and free-wheeling environment – including confidentiality, corporate liability, reputation management, free speech and disclosure – one thing is clear: social media cannot be ignored.  Even seemingly benign comments on social media sites can spread and develop into a major crisis.

Risk managers understand the importance of social media, and most companies already have taken the critical first step into this new world by developing official social media policies that establish clear guidelines for use and oversight.  Unfortunately, while these plans mitigate risk, they provide little help when a crisis occurs.  Companies need to take additional steps to optimize their online reputations and social media presence – before a crisis occurs – by building favorable corporate profiles on major social media sites and by monitoring social media activity so they can quickly identify and address erroneous or defamatory information before it spreads and reaches crisis levels.

Crises of one size or another are inevitable, and every company should have a methodology and mechanism in place for real-time engagement as a crisis unfolds.  Social media has not changed the fundamentals of crisis communications.  It’s still true that how you handle a crisis is often more defining for an organization than the crisis itself; that no amount of PR “spin” can make a crisis go away, but a well-managed response can minimize its impact; that it’s vital to bring together the right team quickly under a strong, empowered leader; that you need to collect facts quickly; and that preserving credibility is key.  Social media simply puts the process into hyperdrive.

In the social media society, everything happens at lightning speed.  Bad news spreads faster than ever and companies need to react fast – often in a matter of hours.  Today, everyone has a voice and can play investigative journalist.  What were once considered “private” conversations now can be read on a blog minutes after they take place, and brand detractors now have the same tools as the promoters. 

So what’s a company to do?  The most important thing is to have a clear, comprehensive, well-communicated plan in place when a crisis occurs, including social media crises.  We recommend a three-phased approach:

1) Monitoring and Assessment, during which the crisis team gauges the social media climate and pinpoints the origins of damaging commentary; 

2) Response Formulation, when the team develops the response; and

3) Tactical Execution, including the dissemination of approved statements and messages using traditional media and corporate social media channels.

While the social media world can be an unnerving place, corporate crisis managers can take heart in knowing that social media also provides them with an amazingly powerful communications tool.  One paradox of the social media society is that the source of a crisis can be the best remedy, as social media outlets are typically the fastest and often the most effective tool for responding.

 

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Jamie Tully is a managing director in Sard Verbinnen's New York office.  Sard Verbinnen & Co (SVC), a leading strategic corporate and financial communications firm, provides communications counsel and services to clients including multinational corporations, smaller public and private companies, investment firms, financial and professional service firms, and high-profile individuals.  SVC’s work encompasses corporate positioning, media relations and investor relations, transaction communications, crisis communications, litigation support, and other special situations.  In 2012, SVC was ranked as the #1 M&A PR firm in the United States by deal value and by deal volume by mergermarket and Corporate Control Alert.

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