Crisis Communications in the Age of Social Media

Having a social media plan and adopting these best practices will ensure your campus crisis communications efforts are effective.

The rapidly evolving world of digital communications and savvy journalists requires a new and expanded approach to crisis communication.

Social media plays an increasingly critical role in informing, engaging and interacting with the public during a crisis. That public, in turn, spends a great deal of time online discovering, analyzing and engaging in sharing information and debate. Interactive online media makes it easier for stakeholders and others to participate by contributing content, and creating and sharing experiences. In many cases, however, not all the sharing is positive or truthful.

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Social media creates an information flow of far greater velocity and volatility than traditional media and even neighborhood “over-the-fence” grapevines. Social media has also emerged as today’s most convenient and likely first news source. Even mainstream media has turned to social media to generate content. In turn, much of the content on social media is a rehash of mainstream media stories and opinion.

All of this requires communications professionals and organizational leaders to transform how they view, interact with and disseminate information to their employees and affected communities.

Start With a Social Media Plan
An effective crisis communication plan must include a use of social media strategy. Social media can be used as a systematic emergency management tool to communicate and engage with the stakeholders and the general public. However, applying the same crisis communication rules to social media as traditional media is outdated and ill advised.

If not already listening to your audiences on social media, start now. A crisis is overwhelming and attempts to gain a presence on social media platforms during a crisis are too late. Developing relationships with stakeholders before a crisis occurs builds trust. Establish social media relationships early, or risk having stakeholders going to other sources and groups for information.

Best Practices for Using Social Media Before a Crisis:

  • Establish a presence by creating social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, LinkedIn, etc.
  • Make a commitment to using social media every day. Engage stakeholders by creating “conversations.” This builds loyalty and a base of supporters in good and challenging times.
  • Determine how the organization will respond and who will be in charge of the response.
  • Promote emergency preparedness and educate stakeholders about risks and response steps. Engaging audiences, anticipating crises, providing an avenue for tips, and focusing on the importance of preparedness may help to prevent an incident.Join in the conversation now and listen to what people are saying about the organization.

In a time when the news cycle is 24/7 and new information is measured in minutes, it’s important to be proactive. The immediacy of social media is an important feature during a crisis.

Best Practices for Using Social Media During a Crisis:

  • Waste no time in sharing information on all forms of media to internal and external audiences. Stay on message. Instead of creating a new message for social media, use existing key messages.
  • Frequent updates throughout the duration of the crisis, even if there is nothing new to report. Keep messages brief and pertinent. Users are not reading, they are scanning.
  • Social media is often where stakeholders and the public go for information about the crisis, and to provide their own insight or opinion. Monitor social media networks (focus on the top three) to develop an understanding of stakeholder and community needs.
  • Interact with users to address misinformation and establish the organization as a credible source. Responding to posts demonstrates an active presence and perception that the organization cares what stakeholders think.

Best practices for using social media after a crisis:

  • Reassure public by communicating ongoing response and recovery efforts. Demonstrate a commitment to transparency and let stakeholders know the organization intends to share the results of any after-crisis review and corrective actions.
  • Re-engaging on social media platforms provides an opportunity to regain the trust of stakeholders. Don’t stop communicating. If mistakes were made, acknowledge them and work to regain trust.

Social media has fundamentally altered the communications landscape. Maintaining a robust crisis management strategy demands the complete integration of social media in the organization’s Emergency Operations Plan. However, remember this key point, while social media provides a whole new set of challenges and opportunities, the fundamentals of crisis communication does not change. Managing any crisis successfully is less about saying the right things and more about doing the right things.

Rick J. Kaufman, APR is the Executive Director of Community Relations and Emergency Management for Bloomington (MN) Public Schools. He is a nationally respected consultant, trainer and author on crisis management and communications, having worked in public school systems and emergency management for the past 25 years, including leading the Crisis Response Team in the wake of the Columbine High School tragedy in 1999. He will be presenting Leading Through Communication: When “IT” Hits the Fan at Campus Safety Conference West this summer. Attendees of Kaufman’s presentation will learn the range of effective communication strategies and tools they can apply to their campuses. To register, visit

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