Editor’s Note: It’s been almost two weeks since the tragic events at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and as a country, we’re still reeling from the impact. I first wrote this piece before the events in Orlando, and I can’t believe it has become so relevant yet again before we even had a chance to publish. Clearly, our country is grappling with issues here that go so far beyond anything to do with social media or PR, and by comparison the question of brand social media response seems so small. And yet, with no immediate end in sight to the prevalence of violence in our world, the issue of social media still seems to require discussion and guidance. So I’ve edited that original post to share now. I hope it will prove useful to others in the PR community.
When social feeds are dominated with reports on a tragedy, there is nothing more awkward than seeing a brand’s unrelated promotional content wedged into the mix. Even if the content was scheduled to publish days or even weeks in advance—in the moment, poor timing makes the brand come across as self-serving, insensitive, and disrespectful.
This challenge first became particularly evident to my team on the evening of Friday, November 13, 2015, when a series of coordinated terrorist attacks took place in Paris and its surrounding suburbs. Sadly, the same challenge reemerged less than two weeks ago during the attack at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
On social media both in the moment and in the days and weeks afterward, these events in Paris and Orlando were all anyone was talking about, and understandably so. In both instances, Facebook even activated a safety check-in feature so users could let family and friends know they were okay.
The Need to Mobilize Quickly
The attacks on Paris and in Orlando quickly became a social crisis. As the news unfolded online across all channels, it became critical that brands tune in and show sensitivity to the conversation happening around them.
At Geben, we handle social for a wide variety of local and national brands—everything from local microbreweries to Fortune 100 retailers. In both cases, all our clients had active organic content schedules, multiple clients had social ads running, and there was live engagement going on across channels, too.
To complicate matters more, these events happened on weekends. No one was in the office or tuned in on Slack for updates from me or our Social Media Director. We wanted to be sensitive to the crisis happening around us, and we needed to act fast—but at time of the Paris attacks, there was no formal protocol or process in place. Thankfully, we were able to quickly mobilize to pause organic and paid social posts.
Afterward, when we debriefed internally, we found ourselves asking, “What is the process for this?”
Geben’s (New) Social Crisis Protocol
In the weeks following the Paris attacks, we developed the Geben Social Crisis Protocol as an internal document that our entire team can access. It provides everyone with eight steps we can take to be prepared for emergencies and help our clients avoid negative attention during an already stressful situation.
Circumstances in each crisis will vary, but the general step-by-step will often look similar:
1. Upon learning of an incident you believe may be worth paying attention to, alert your other team members – for us, that means myself, plus our directors of PR and social media – to monitor the situation with you. Twitter is typically the fastest to react to crises, but Facebook often becomes a place of discussion as well. Potential red flags include: shootings, hostage situations, major protests, natural disasters, etc.
2. At the point that an incident is dominating social media conversation, halt content for all clients across all platforms. This includes paid and organic content. Keep track of what content has been paused so you can reschedule/resume when it’s an appropriate time to do so.
3. Look through published content from the last several days. Is there anything that could be shared/retweeted that would be seen as insensitive given the situation? If so, delete it.
4. Contact the client to let them know of the situation. If you manage day-to- day conversations with the client, feel free to send yourself, copying the Director of Social. If you are not the day-to- day client contact, draft an email for that person to send on behalf of the team. Here’s an example of the language you can use:
You may have already seen the news surrounding XX. Since this is dominating social channels at the moment, we’ve paused all content scheduled for the next several hours. We’ll be keeping an eye on the situation, and will resume posting once chatter has quieted. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions!
5. When conversation around the issue has settled down, consult the rest of your team to decide when it’s appropriate to resume content.
6. Go through upcoming scheduled content to make sure there’s nothing that could be seen as insensitive in the wake of the incident. Example: “Francophiles unite! It’s Bastille Day, and that means croissants and crème brulee all around” following the Paris attacks. Ensure that any time-sensitive content still makes sense (holidays, time of day, etc.).
7. It’s usually best for brands to remain silent on an issue, because commentary from a business often comes off insincere, and capitalizing off of a tragedy. There are situations where a sincere message is appropriate, e.g. @CbusMarathon standing in solidarity with Boston after the 2013 bombings. If you’re unclear about whether a piece of content is appropriate, feel free to consult with the Director of Social or another member of the team.
8. Continue to monitor the situation for the next 24 hours to make sure residual incidents don’t occur that would require another halt.
The Benefits of a Clear Process
With an established protocol in hand to streamline our process, we can make sure that everyone who needs to participate in the internal conversation is immediately looped in. Then, once a decision is made, we’re able to cascade it out as quickly as possible.
We formalized the protocol after the Paris bombing, and experienced the benefits of the process in the wake of the Orlando shooting, which ensured even though the tragedy happened during the weekend, our team was able to mobilize and react quickly.
What’s more, our social crisis protocol makes sure no client gets overlooked. We want to make sure that all our clients—regardless of size—have their best interests protected, no matter what. By involving the right people in the conversation immediately, every brand is cared for every time.
We’d never wish a crisis on anyone or any brand, but the reality is, bad things happen in this world. By having a protocol in place when the moment arises, your team can quickly be on the same page and ready to manage any social crisis.
Feel free to borrow verbiage or processes from our social crisis protocol, which we’ll continually update in this Google doc.
Does your brand have its own social crisis protocol, or do you see something we’re missing? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below.