Dealing With The Press In A Social Media Crisis (Part 1)

Editor’s note: Brad Phillips is taking two weeks off to celebrate the arrival of his new son. This is a guest post by crisis communication professional Melissa Agnes. Part two of this post will appear later this week.

I was recently asked the following question by a reader:

“I’d be interested in hearing how you would deal with the press/media in a social media crisis. In particular, how do you deal with the press when they start tweeting and Facebooking as well as blogging their story about a brand in crisis.”

The truth is, the press have and will always be around in a crisis. The difference that social media brings to the table is that anybody and everybody with a blog or a big following can be considered “the press.” We’re all publishers and content curators today. We all have questions and write about the issues that intrigue and matter to us.

Sudden problem

So, in order to fully answer this question, there are two areas that I would like to address: communicating with the press through your employees (today), and communicating with the press through social media (later this week).

If you’ve developed a crisis communications plan and trained your staff on the proper ways to execute it, than you know that it’s important to educate each member of your team on how to properly deal with the press when they come knocking.

A well-trained employee will know not to answer any questions posed by the press regarding a crisis unless they have been titled as a spokesperson for that crisis. As for those who have not been titled as such, they should know where and to whom to refer the inquirer(s) for answers to their questions.

But even the most trained employees can get confused when it comes to social media. We’re so used to receiving @mentions on Twitter today that a simple question may seem harmless—until it gets published and extra damage control is needed by the brand. This is a common and innocent error in judgment that can cause your brand some major repercussions. Especially when said “interview” begins to go viral.

For this reason, it’s very important that each and every member of your team be trained on how to handle the press. As my friend and colleague Jonathan Bernstein says:

“Every employee is a public relations representative and crisis manager for your organization, whether you want them to be or not.”

That said, it’s very important that every single member of your staff clearly understands the following, before a crisis strikes your brand:

1. What they are and are NOT allowed to say to the press, during a crisis. This goes for traditional and social media.

2. Under what circumstances they are allowed to respond to inquiries and what types of questions they are permitted to answer—even when the inquiries come from a member of their own social graph or inner circle (friends, family, etc.).

3. Where they should refer incoming inquiries that they are not permitted to respond to. Should they be referred to an official member of the crisis communications team, to a dedicated web page (which you will have provided them a link to), etc.

4. What are the consequences for breaching these terms, both for the corporation and for the individual culprit.

Remember that your employees may be approached by the press in a crisis, and unless you want to have to do some additional damage control, it’s up to you to make sure that every single one of them understands what their particular role is within a crisis, as well as what is expected of them.

What about you? What tips and lessons have you learned when dealing with the press during a social media crisis, or a crisis of any kind? Share your experiences below!

Melissa Agnes, president of Melissa Agnes Crisis Management, is a specialist in social media crises and online reputation management. She also writes a daily blog on the subject of online crisis management. You can connect with her on Twitter and LinkedIn.