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How companies should navigate social media in a crisis

Sharon Gaudin | April 25, 2013
Companies using social networks like Twitter and Facebook need to face what to do during a national crisis like the Boston Marathon bombing.

"Companies can have a lot of pull and broad reach," said Shimmin. "There's no reason why they should sit idly by."

However, it would be better for a company to go silent on social networks during a crisis than to continue to tweet or post about a new ad campaign or, even worse, say something inappropriate.

One of the basic tenets of marketing is that you don't want to be talking when no one is listening or when you're talking is going to upset your audience," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "This means you don't roll out a big new marketing campaign during a time when your market is focused exclusively on something else that's more important.

"One of the advantages of social media marketing is that it can be changed or postponed very quickly and at little cost," he added.

Going silent on social media is better than continuing to spew out a previously scheduled sales promotion. Companies that do that risk looking insensitive and uncaring.

Hinojosa also said companies should never try to be funny during a time of crisis. Sometimes it's tempting to want to break the mood with something funny, but it nearly always comes off as insensitive.

Analysts also stressed the importance of not appearing to use a crisis to garner publicity. If there's no reason for a company to be making a comment -- if the crisis is not affecting your community or your customers, for example -- then think about not commenting. Also don't make a statement of support and then link to a product announcement or a sales pitch.

Also, make sure it doesn't appear that your company is trying to hijack a media trend or trying to draw attention to itself based on someone else's bad news.

"Companies should really look at Dunkin' Donuts and how they handled it," said Olds. "They've done two, no, three great things here. First, they're truly doing something to help with the $100,000 donation. Second, they have shown their community of customers that they care about the market they serve and they're a positive member of that community. They've also given their employees something to be proud of, which is hard to measure on the bottom line, but which pays dividends."

To be able to handle a crisis well in the public eye takes work and sit-down planning. Companies that have a social media presence need to have a social media crisis management plan.

"You need to think about internal communications and external communications," said Brian Blau, an analyst with Gartner Inc. "Companies need to respond in real time. Companies also have to be careful to not say something that will inflame the situation or propagate false information."


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