Hold your horses – don’t tweet back just yet. Your role as social media manager is to sound the alarm to PR, and partner with them on the crisis communications strategy. Don’t react impulsively on social channels, no matter how many people are messaging you: it’s critical to understand what your message is and what your plan is for response before you open up a dialogue.

Roles & Responsibilities | Crisis Communications Strategy

Our crack PR veteran, Marc Cowlin, recently wrote an article giving up his playbook for PR crisis management.  As someone who has managed social media channels during a PR crisis, including being tapped to participate in the crisis communications strategy, I figured I’d take a quick look at social media’s role during a reputation crisis.

The short story: ultimately, social media’s role in a PR crisis is a support role to corporate communications.

I know, this doesn’t sound very exciting.  Look at it this way:

You are Paul Revere, social media manager.  You sound the alarm, and then you serve as courier.  

click to tweet

It is a noble cause, and you may therefore be permitted to imagine yourself astride a noble steed of some sort.


Usually, social media and PR pros have the same goal: to get people talking about the brand.  However, crisis communications strategy is one of those rare times wherein the marketing objectives of these two job functions may be at odds.  Social media is a dialogue marketing model that seeks to engage a social community in conversation, and PR’s job is to make sure that the right message is getting across to the right people.  In crisis communications strategy, you will be part of a crack response team with PR, and your role is to inform: you will most likely be sounding the alarm, informing the communications strategy, and then informing the community with that message.

Sound the Alarm | Crisis Communications Strategy

The social media manager is the most likely person to see a PR crisis on the horizon due to the real-time nature of social media.  People will use social media channels to contact and/or talk about your company, and normally this is a good thing: yay RT’s!  Hey, more Facebook activity!  Look at all these direct messages!

But during a crisis, those messages are negative and/or misinformed.  This is one of the few times where, as a social media manager, you don’t want to engage your audience right away.  Yes, it is tempting: I’ve been there.  And yes, it will be additionally tempting to try to convince your head of PR or Corporate Comms that opening up a dialogue is a great way to engage a new audience who might have never heard of you.

But, at the end of the day, it’s generally PR’s job to determine the best way to address this conversation.  And it’s also PR’s call.  Reputation management falls pretty squarely in the corporate communication camp, so your most useful role during a crisis is to see it coming, sound the alarm, and wait for further instruction.

Here’s the good news: your stats for that period of time will be epic, and you might actually identify some key influencers to earmark for future engagement in your social community management strategy.

Stick to the Message | Crisis Communications Strategy

Crisis communications can be less about encouraging dialogue and more about delivering a strategic, broadcasted message.  When you sit down with your corporate communications or PR person (read: whoever is in charge of the crisis communications strategy), take some time to discuss whether you want to engage with people contacting you directly.  This is a great time to partner with corporate communications, and your role is to help them understand what might happen on social channels with different courses of action.

This is usually the point at which I, as a social media marketer, try to convince PR to have a conversation with the detractors.  So far I’ve never won this entreaty, but hey: it would definitely be interesting.

However, PR’s job is to make these sorts of annoyances disappear as quickly as possible, and that’s less likely if you’re engaging with an angry mob: your participation keeps that conversation alive.  Chances are that, much like a politician, you will be instructed to stick to the talking points laid our for you in the crisis communications strategy.  You may also be instructed to issue a statement on your social media channels, and then point people to that statement.

So when unpleasantness hits the fan, just remember to sound the alarm, step aside, don your protective outerwear (cat optional),  and wait for orders.   Ultimately, your response in a crisis should be planned, non-reactionary, and in-line with a larger crisis communications strategy.  You may not be as involved in the conversation as you’d like to be, but that’s the nature of this particularly unruly beast.

And hey, another bonus for your cooperation might present itself outside the workplace: by being a great partner in this sort of a reputation crisis, you earn major brownie points with your PR people.  And PR people always know where the best parties are.