Making sense of the impact of social media on crisis communication

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An MA thesis focused on making sense of the impact of social media on crisis communication

By Tegan Ford

Given the number of crisis situations gaining high-profile attention through social media, I decided to look at how the addition of social media to crisis scenarios has disrupted the field of corporate communications. This research forms the foundation of my Masters of Arts in Communications program at Carleton University.

This post looks at my thesis findings to help show how crisis communications experts view social media’s impact, particularly in relation to established responses and theories.

Arguably, social media have initiated a change in the functioning of corporations that impacts the development of crises and crisis communications. Literature highlights social media’s influence in the following ways: speed, engagement, control of the message, interactivity, authenticity, boundaries, visibility and transparency, and crisis facilitation and triggers.

Social media provide ordinary citizens with the ability to become key players in the construction and framing of crises according to Phillips and Young (2007). Consequently, Gonzelz-Herrero & Smith (2008) argued that this new producer role has afforded audiences greater power than ever before. It has created a space in which people are increasingly able to publicly and anonymously express dissent, creating and exposing issues requiring a corporate response (Stephens & Malone in Coombs & Holladay, 2012).

My thesis proposed that social media dynamics have influenced how crises emerge and take shape, and are likely provoking a change in how corporations approach crisis communications. The theoretical framework for my research included James Grunig’s two-way symmetrical model, William Benoit’s image restoration theory and apology theories, dominant theories that were developed prior to the growth of social media to explore their continuing relevance today.

To explore my research questions regarding the impact of social media on how crises are defined, responses and established theories, I undertook a series of in-depth, semi-structured interviews with key subject-matter experts in Canada and the United States. It was a privilege to interview a dozen participants, including PR Conversations’ own, Judy Gombita. I thank them for their support.

Defining a crisis

For experts, there was no one definition of a crisis, nor is there even one agreed-upon requirement for a crisis to be defined as such. Properties of a crisis, in order from most to least agreed-upon criteria, comprise a negative impact on the brand or reputation, monetary impact, harm to individuals outside of the organization, for some, this must include injury or death, prevention of daily functions, and threat or potential of damage.

Social media developments did not fundamentally change the participants’ definition of what constituted a crisis. However, some felt that social media modified the dynamics underlying the development of a crisis. They argued social media amplify events, increases the likelihood of a crisis occurring, and can offer a platform to create a crisis. All argued social media amplify otherwise discrete events into potentially large-scale crises; some of which may have faded quickly without the existence of social media. As Judy Gombita said, “Social media have made molehills into mountains.”

Looking at the impact of social media, customer service experience was described as amplifying negative situations beyond what they would have been previously. Bob LeDrew said, “All of a sudden I have two million behind me, and it becomes a giant deal for the organization. That is the difference: the amplifier effect.”

Social media also increase the probability of a crisis occurring because of the much broader range of prospective complainants—consumers, activists, journalists and others—monitoring the corporate environment for minor to serious transgressions. Melissa Carroll estimated, “The possibility of having a crisis has doubled.” Christopher Barger identified, “The tendency to overreact is probably greater” and explained, “This ability to have an individual’s bone to pick or an individual’s crisis to become a bigger deal, that is probably the bigger change, not the definition of crisis, just who can influence whether something becomes a crisis.”

How social media impacts crisis response

Looking at how social media change responses to crises, my research found a need for strategies including immediate response; commitment to two-way dialogue with public; listening to the audience; building a relationship with the consumer prior to a crisis; being accountable; reacting to the situation, being honest, open, transparent, and credible; being human, authentic, and compassionate; using video technology; and monitoring communications.

The speed with which information can move immediately was identified as meaning a crisis can escalate to a major scale within days, hours or even minutes. Jonathan Bernstein noted, “Online communication is getting faster and faster. Literally in an hour social media can do the same amount of damage that might have taken a week to accomplish in pre social media days.”

As well as the rapid speed, social media enable information to travel more broadly, being less impeded by regional boundaries. That is, social media offer a decentralized networked structure that, through sharing, linking, and posting, permits wider flows of information. In the case of a crisis, this means it can be revealed publicly, globally, making containment of the crisis and its impacts (real and imagined) difficult, if not impossible.

Further, the participants acknowledged that social media afford opportunities for the spread of misinformation to be published, even to create a crisis. In the era when traditional news media ruled the day, corporations were able to correct misinformation or demand a retraction in the event of inaccurate coverage. Today incorrect information can be intentionally published to negatively affect a brand, and in some cases to start a crisis. Christopher Barger termed such people “brand bullies.” Bob LeDrew said, “You will have people sending out malicious information, adding fuel to the fire, making the fire bigger and bigger. So people like me, our job is to stomp out false fires.” The consequences of such change require instantaneous responses, with less time to construct a response in the event of a crisis.

From audience to producers of content

The recasting of the audience from only a consumer to also a producer of content was considered in my study. Judy Gombita characterized the ease with which ordinary people can throw accusations in a highly visible way at organizations as “drive-by opinionating.” Mobile technology was felt to enable user-generated content as “anything that happens can very well be reported in some way,” according to Bob LeDrew.

The creation of parody, anti-corporate, and spoof sites potentially increase public power and increase demand for organization accountability. Bob LeDrew observed, “The potential for mockery, satire, and parody and mean-spirited impostering is also there in a way that wasn’t before.” This satire serves to disrupt and refresh the narrative of a crisis. Where once organizations held power over consumers, they are now better able to push back. Melissa Agnes described the shift, “Not only do we have a voice, but we demand that voice, as consumers, as individuals.”

A commitment to dialogue and active listening

As a result, the participants endorsed a strategy of being committed to dialogue with the public especially in the event of a crisis, a concept reflected in Grunig’s two-way symmetrical model of public relations. It is also beneficial for organizations to maintain a positive conversational arc. That is, the public has a platform it can use to discuss the organization, and if the organization is not a part of this conversation there is no way to ensure the conversation moves in a direction that will be favourable to it. The experts in my study warned of the dangers of ceding control over conversations about your brand and reputation to others, and advise corporations to assert themselves in the new-media ecology to reduce the production and flow of negative content.

The strategy of “active listening” was advocated by many of the participants with real-life experience of its effectiveness. Given the public’s ability to speak directly to the corporation through social media channels, there are now more opportunities to form relationships. This is an important element of successful crisis communications today, which the participants agreed, potentially, creates a cushion of goodwill, a sense of trust, and a notion of credibility, one that will assist the organization in minimizing damage to its reputation and brand, and rebuild the image once the period of crisis has passed. Such relationships must be fully established before the onset of a crisis to create “brand advocates” who will come to the organization’s defence in the event of a crisis.

Corporations were advised by the participants to monitor social media communications in real time, particularly during a crisis. This serves to identify impending issues and allow organizations to avert an issue on track to escalate into a crisis. Ongoing monitoring entails the organization staying current with public sentiment and concern during a crisis. It provides corporations with rich data that can be used as feedback for their communications and to inform their responses. However, the scale of comments being generated through social media in a crisis was noted as a problem. Mat Wilcox said, “Monitoring social media right now is crazy, like 50,000 comments an hour on an issue, and which ones count, how do you respond, how do you know, how do you do this? And measurement is terrible, how are you going to measure? It is complete and utter bullshit, and you can quote me on that.”

Two-way symmetrical and image restoration theory – A reconsideration

My thesis concludes that social media dynamics have led a re-emphasis or disruption of established crisis communication strategies and theories. Research found support for Grunig’s two-way symmetrical model. In the realm of social media, where the audience expects two-way communication flows, corporate adoption of the two-way model of communication—a sustained balanced dialogue where the organization listens to the concerns of the public and encourages an open and honest, mutually beneficial relationship between the corporation and the stakeholders—is now increasingly more valuable to adopt, especially in the case of a crisis. In contrast, Benoit’s image restoration theory (IRT) has become more problematic.

Benoit offered five major strategies for handling a crisis: denial; evading responsibility; reducing offensiveness; corrective action; and mortification. Minimization and denial, once prominent and effective in repairing or restoring a damaged image or reputation have become more problematic in the contemporary media environment. These strategies are no longer tenable, given the ubiquitous nature of social media and the demands for visibility and accountability. Corporate misdeeds rarely stay private, and corporations are less able to ignore problems, hide from facts, minimize or deny the situation or its severity, or even shut off the flow of information altogether. To quote Bob LeDrew, “We can’t deny that there is a crisis when there is a crisis.”

These approaches to crisis communications have become ineffective and frankly more dangerous to the corporation’s reputation and image in the long run. That is, the truth is usually revealed and, when it is, corporations who find themselves in a lie will take an even more severe hit to their image.

The apology

While minimization and denial have become ill-advised, the participants in my study universally endorsed Benoit’s apology strategy of IRT. Indeed, it is seen as a standard response, with social-media dynamics increasing pressure on corporations that commit wrongdoing to apologize. As a result the frequency of apologies is felt to have increased, with an accelerated response time for issuing an apology.

Another effect of social media is to provide a valuable apology platform. YouTube, Twitter and Facebook offer a different approach, feel, and connotation to the apology than other, traditional, mediums. They offer an advantageous platform on which to apologize, being transparent and candid, so reinforcing a sense of the corporation being open and authentic, according to the participants. Social media enable a more personal approach offering an apology a greater chance of acceptance. Social media offer the ability to produce, perhaps control, the content of the apology that can be magnified by social media. Not all participants agreed that social media offer an advantage, claiming that traditional media were more credible and trustworthy.

Effective crisis management

In summary, my study identified the following best practices as crucial to effective crisis management in the social media era:

  1. Respond immediately to your public at the onset of a crisis.
  2. Be committed to maintaining open, two-way dialogue.
  3. Listen to your audience’s concerns and place them over the concerns of the corporation.
  4. Be honest, transparent, open, and credible
  5. Build a relationship with your public prior to a crisis.
  6. Be accountable before the public demands you be accountable.
  7. Be flexible and adaptable.
  8. Be human, authentic, and use compassion in all communications.
  9. Apologize immediately upon offence (demonstrating human qualities when expressing contrition for committing wrongdoing and avoid corporate speak, legal jargon, and other formal discourses).
  10. Monitor all communications in real time.
  11. Recognize this is all easier said than done.

In conclusion

My thesis revealed that social media have impacted how crises emerge and take form, and the strategies and requirements of crisis communications by affected organizations. It supports the application of the two-way symmetrical model of public relations and identified how certain strategies, once prominent and effective in repairing or restoring a damaged image or reputation, have become more problematic in the contemporary media environment.

I believe that by following the advice provided by my research participants, corporations that transgress will not have their crises amplified to the same degree and can better maintain credibility and trust, a good relationship with their public, stakeholders and consumers, gain respect and allies, and experience a shortened lifetime of a crisis.

This thesis offers a set of recommendations that could be the difference between the end of a crisis and the end of a corporation.

For more information on crisis communications in the social media era, you are invited to read my MA thesis or contact me by email.

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Tegan Ford, MA, is a recent graduate of the MA Communications program at Carleton University, where she studied crisis communications in a social media era.

Currently, Tegan is employed at Canada Post where she plans and implements social media strategies to engage with the public and situate Canada Post as a thought leader in the shipping world.

Connect with Tegan on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Thanks are extended to the multi-talented Heather Yaxley for creating the original graphic that accompanies Tegan Ford’s post.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Tremendous article, Tegan! Our firm specializes in crisis management for the financial sector and our job is to safeguard their respective businesses from crises offline and online (i.e. social media). You captured many of the important tactics. Well done! We advocate (and coined the phrase), “Crisis management is 99 percent preparation and one percent execution.” If a company is not prepared before a crisis happens, the advice given in this article will fall flat.
    –LT Public Relations

    • Thank you, LT Public Relations, for taking the time to read. I am glad you found it insightful. I also agree, preparation and planning are very important.
      — Tegan Ford

  2. Tegan, I am SO coming back to this!

    It’s a crazy time in which we practice, when an incident can be labeled a brand-killing ‘crisis’ not by those who were truly impacted or in the know, but anyone with an opinion and loud-enough voice. Anyone. [Think Judy’s ‘drive-by’ about sums it up.] Throw in some mass media linkbait click juice hype and .. oh my. Don’t misunderstand me – it’s good that we follow, it’s good we learn from the mistakes of others, these cautionary tales have their place. I’m only leery of the fear as weapon, the absurd notion that businesses and organizations – run by fallible humans – are being held to such standards in business and esp. social media.

    This is good. The breakdown of the cycle and practices, the apology itself – w/ all its legal land mines and social mojo, polished and rehearsed vs. candid and honest – never mind defining a true crisis. Anything that damages a brand’s image has crisis potential and yet, so so many things fit that bill but are forgotten w/ yesterday’s bath water, having not touched the bottom line. Something I’m thinking about and yes, will come back to soon. FWIW.

    • Davina, I am glad you enjoyed the article. I agree with you entirely though that social media has led to organizations, run by people, being held to such high standards…it is an interesting society we live in now.

  3. Lovely piece. I am a grad Student working on Social Media and some of its impacts especially on the young adults. I enjoyed your work and if you would not mind, i would like to go through some of your academic resources used during your work.

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