Using social media for crisis comms

How your culture, use of social media and the crisis itself influences whether you should use social media to respond.

This blog post was produced for Hospice UK following the HUK Comms Day in July. It is intended for hospices and healthcare providers but is relevant to others too.

chaotic hose pipe, swirling patter

What does your crisis comms plan say about how you’ll use social media? Does your social media policy or strategy (if you have one) include detail about how to respond to an emergency or high-profile story? Do you have the skills and processes in place so you could hit the ground running if you needed to?

Charities have consistently been in the headlines this year. Some cases such as Oxfam, GOSH and Alder Hey were front page news for weeks. Charities such as RNLI and Dogs Trust had to set the records straight when journalists mis-reported stories about their work. We live in a time where people can voice their opinions loudly.

In crisis situations (which can be bad or good), social media can be well used to promote your side of the story, to connect with supporters and to even turn a story around. But to get it right, you need to fully assess the situation to work out how to respond. What you do depends on having a culture and framework where social media is a well-oiled comms tool.

Deciding what to do depends on the crisis and your approach to social media.

Different types of crisis

For the comms team or social media officer, a crisis occurs when they have to drop everything to work on the issue. Therefore a crisis can take various forms. For example a crisis can be:

  • an organisational crisis – physical incidents (fire, flood, power cut, bad weather etc) / patient incident / funding crisis / fraud / malpractice / data breach / high-profile patient / patron in the news
  • a crisis in the local area – as community-based organisations, should you join in with local issues? If a local crisis hits (such as a big accident, fire, local celebrity scandal) do you have capacity or the inclination to connect with local people or show solidarity?
  • social media ‘crisis’ – this means something which is primarily on social media. This could be something you have started yourself which has ‘gone viral’ or a hashtag you need to join in with, or a patient documenting their illness which includes the care you are giving them.

How you respond depends on the situation. And the culture and community you have created around your comms.

A social culture

Does your organisation primarily use social media to broadcast? This means that your Twitter or Facebook feeds are effectively noticeboards announcing events or news? There is no interaction or engagement.

Or is your social media, social? An organisation with fully social channels typically does many of the following:

  • receives and responds to comments – building relationships with supporters
  • comments on other people’s messages – this means they follow and listen to others, responding where relevant
  • connects with local people and businesses away from their own channels – either in other forums or groups, or joining in with social media ‘events’ like #BirminghamHour
  • being creative with social – joining in with trending or topical issues
  • using storytelling
  • trusting staff and volunteers to use social media in their work (this is especially key if you had to draft in colleagues to help out in a crisis)
  • building a group of followers who stand up for the organisation.

If you have a social rather than broadcast approach to your comms and social media, when a crisis hits, you will be in a better place to respond. Partly because you’ll probably have a bigger audience but mostly because you will have an engaged one.

Comms planning

Key to responding well is planning. Have you done a training exercise around a crisis situation? Have you brainstormed situations and standard responses? Even if these scenarios never occur, it is useful to have done the thinking so you can apply it to a different situation.

It is essential to have done thinking around:

  • your tone of voice and housestyle. How is this different on social media? How would your press statement work cut and pasted on to Twitter? Do you need to change the jargon or simplify the message? What images could you use?
  • your integrated comms – how will you use different social channels? How will this integrate with your website, print and email comms?
  • processes around publishing to social media, including monitoring and responding out of office hours. Do you have a list of who uses social media in a professional capacity to represent your organisation so you can get hold of them in an emergency?

I have produced a set of questions to help you work out whether it is a good idea to respond or not – see Crisis Comms Questions (PDF). There are no right or wrong answers and not every question will be relevant. This is intended to help you think about the situation either as part of your crisis comms planning in ‘peacetime’ or if you are in a live crisis.

screenshot of questions about whether to take action or not

Examples

In addition to well documented crisis, played out on social including Oxfam, GOSH, RNLI and Dogs Trust, here are some examples of hospice crisis comms in action.

St Giles Hospice – #MakeFredFamous

Some of the tweets received to #MakeFredFamous

91-year old Fred attends St Giles Hospice’s computer group. The team asked people to wish him happy birthday via their Twitter feed. It took off!

To date there have been 45k retweets and 40k likes and thousands of people sent birthday messages. Fred was featured on local news and radio.

The team worked out when to calm the situation down and regularly checked in with Fred that he was ok with the attention. Fred signed off the press release. The coverage helped them to tell people about a different aspect of their work as Fred wasn’t a patient.

Sue Ryder Thorpe Hall

Sample of tweets responding to a theft at Thorpe Hall

When someone stole donations from the hospice last Christmas, the team wrote an open letter to the thief on their website and promoted it on the social channels. This inspired people to do something to help.

Local people, businesses and community groups rallied round and gave donations. The story got on the local news. The hospice was overwhelmed by the response and over £5000 was raised.

Thorpe Hall could have said nothing about the incident but by approaching it in a positive way, the story spread and inspired people to get involved with great results.

Useful reads

See also 5 digital comms tips for hospices – a blog post from 2015 with some great examples.

What do you think?

How has your organisation approached crisis comms? Are there situations where you purposefully haven’t used social media? How do you make decisions about what to do? Who decides?

Please do share in the comments. I’d particularly like feedback on the PDF questions – are they useful / what’s missing?

Can I help you?

Get in touch if I can help you with digital copywriting, content planning, training or strategy. I work with charities of all shapes and sizes. Can I help give your comms or digital processes a healthcheck and ideas injection?

 

 

With thanks to Sue Ryder, St Giles Hospice, St Wilfrid’s Hospice and St Ann’s Hospice who shared their experiences as part of research for the workshop / blog.

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