Social media has dramatically changed the nature of crises for organisations.
Two examples from recent high profile crises highlight this point. First, back in 2017, passengers on a United Airlines flight posted videos of a passenger dragged out of a plane on YouTube and Facebook. This generated an enormous amount of negative publicity for the company.
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Another example occurred here in New Zealand in 2018. People posted photos of Harcourt employees dressed in blackface on Facebook, which also generated a negative reaction against the company in the media.
During both the United Airlines and Harcourt crises, people were able to take photos and videos with their mobile phones, and quickly share them with thousands of others on social media in a matter of seconds.
Citizens in the digital age have essentially become investigative reporters who can quickly generate a crisis for an organisation.
The sharing of information on social media can cause a crisis to escalate for an organisation within minutes. A good way to illustrate this point is by examining a crisis that occurred to the German multinational corporation BASF, the largest Chemical company in the world. In October 2016 an explosion took place in BASF's chemical plant in Germany, and five people died as a result.
I interviewed the head of Corporate Communications at BASF about the crisis, and she mentioned that only one minute elapsed between the explosion in their chemical plant and the first tweet sent by a person with a mobile phone. She also mentioned that two minutes after the explosion BASF received its first call from a journalist inquiring about the crisis.
Social media activity by employees can also create crises for organisations. A good example is a recent ad campaign by Wellington City Council to recruit new bus drivers. As part of its ad campaign Wellington City Council featured a bus driver who was found to have sent racist tweets in the past. These tweets were quickly uncovered by the public, and Wellington City Council was forced to apologise. Wellington City Council also removed the ads which featured the controversial bus driver.
In another highly publicised incident in the USA, employees from a Domino's Pizza franchise uploaded a video to YouTube which showed the employees preparing food in an unsanitary manner. The video quickly went viral, and the incident created a major crisis for Domino's Pizza. The employees claimed that the video was a prank, and they never served the food to customers. However, Domino's Pizza suffered reputational damage, and the employees were fired.
How has social media impacted companies from a crisis management perspective? First, the speed at which companies need to respond to a crisis has increased dramatically. In my interview with BASF, the head of corporate communications mentioned that BASF strives to issue a press release within 30 minutes of a crisis. Unfortunately when people share photos and videos on social media within seconds of a crisis, 30 minutes may seem too long. However, a company, unlike the general public, needs to gather information and validate facts.
One change that BASF implemented after the crisis in 2016 was switching to social media as its first information channel for communications during a crisis. Communicating via social media will enable BASF to reach its stakeholders quicker during a crisis, compared with other communication channels.
The era of social media also requires companies to conduct a more thorough background check of their employees. This includes activity on social media. If Wellington City Council had known of the bus driver's history with racist tweets on twitter, it probably would not have hired the driver. This of course would have also prevented the council from featuring the driver in its advertising campaign.
Social media can also assist a company during a crisis. First, social media enables organisations to connect with stakeholders directly without the news media filtering the message. If a company has a large following on social media this can be particularly useful.
When reporting on a crisis the news media will typically edit a company's information, and also include information from other sources. Through the use of social media, a company can communicate its message directly with its stakeholders, bypassing the news media.
Second, a company can gather useful information by using social media during a crisis. For example, during a celebrity endorser crisis a company needs to decide whether to continue working with a celebrity endorser. A company can turn to its followers on social media to assess the views of its stakeholders before making a decision. Prior to the era of social media gathering this type of information was both time consuming and expensive.
Managing a crisis in an age of social media poses many challenges for organisations. The speed at which an organisation needs to respond to a crisis has greatly increased. Also, background information of its employees have become much more readily available to the general public.
However, it also presents opportunities that did not exist in the past, such as direct communications with stakeholders, and the ability to quickly gather useful information during a crisis. Understanding this new landscape is key to successfully managing a crisis in the era of social media.
- Daniel Laufer, PhD, MBA is an Associate Professor of Marketing at Victoria University of Wellington, and an expert in Crisis Management. He has previously provided commentary on best practices in Crisis Management for the Wall Street Journal in the USA. In this monthly column, Dr. Laufer gives his perspective on important topics related to Crisis Management.