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Industry Viewpoint: Do not lose enthusiasm for social media in a crisis

In this 24/7, social sharing, digital age, it may be surprising to hear that food companies’ enthusiasm for social media often wanes in the face of a crisis. I have heard all of these staements: “Maybe it (the crisis) will go unnoticed”; “Let’s just temporarily inactivate our (social media) account”; and one of my favorites,”but we don’t want it on social media” (as if there were a choice).

These approaches ignore compelling research and many case studies that clearly show that companies, especially those with consumers brands that use social media to inform, listen and address concerns during crises, protect their brands and reputations better than those that ignore social media all together or those that post and disappear.

If being actively engaged in social media during a crisis can help a company’s brand and reputation, why do some companies resist using it during times of crisis? Each company is unique and each situation different, but here are just a few common reasons:

False sense of security: When a crisis unfolds in stages, the onslaught of public scrutiny can be delayed. This can be especially true of non-outbreak recalls (of which most of them are) because it may take up to 36 hours before the coverage gains a critical mass among consumers and social media users. This calm before the storm can temporarily validate a bunker-mentality.

False sense of purpose: Consumers and consumer advocates use social media as an indicator of whether a company is truly committed to the public good. A company may think its actions will be perceived positively, but if it isn’t willing to be engage with its social media communities, it won’t be seen as being completely committed to that purpose. The sincerity of its purpose will be questioned.

False sense of well-being: Unless a company is public, it can be hard to measure the reputational damage from a crisis event. In the absence of measurements such as stock prices, it is easy to discount, ignore or rationalize that if the company is still in business, its reputation must not have suffered too much. While it is true that a single event doesn’t often take down a company, it is a fallacy to therefore conclude that a company’s reputation or brand are still intact. People may stop asking about what happened, but that doesn’t mean they have forgotten it, nor that their perception of the company is positive.

As real and compelling as these reasons may seem at the time, the issue still isn’t whether or not to engage in social media during a crisis; it is when and how to engage. Here are just a few best practices and crisis communication principles that can turn social media from a perceived liability into an asset.

A company’s social media crisis response strategy will be influenced by its pre-crisis social media presence, so take inventory of the company’s social media platforms and then assess the current relationship with those communities. Social media communities will have higher expectations of a company if they hear from it often and trust it.

Monitoring social media before, during and after a crisis is also critical to understanding how your brand and reputation are affected. Listen to what your communities are telling you. Perhaps most importantly, maintain a social media conversational tone, even when you are talking about a crisis situation.