Dealing With a Crisis on Social Media

For social media professionals, it isn’t always about the glory. It isn’t just about developing spectactular content, introducing the newest channels to your audience, and making things go viral. One of the biggest aspects of the job, if not the most important, is how your social media program responds during crisis.

When a storm comes through, whether it be a weather phenonmenon or a tragedy/scandal/unforeseen event, people understandably expect their schools and employers to make decisions. The leadership teams of these entities get together and do all they can to take the absolute best course of action. Believe me, they investigate all possible scenarios and agonize over every little detail. After all things are considered, a decision is made.

Once a direction is taken, it is time to relay it to the public. Press releases are drafted, e-mails are sent, and text alerts hit thousands of phones. Then there is the social media piece…

—————

At the University of Montana, I oversaw all social media accounts for the heavily followed athletic department channels. I was at the helm when, out of the blue, our athletic director and head football coach were fired on the same day. Because at the time our athletic channels were more followed than the main university channels, the public also looked to our social media program for updates when a ferocious avalanche-inducing winter storm hit the area and when the campus went on lockdown because an armed felon came close to the premises.

Here during my time at Coastal Carolina University we experienced a winter storm earlier this year that resulted in the cancellation of classes. We also experienced a couple other situations that required decisions be made and the public be notified. However, the unprecendented flooding over the past several days gave our university and myself something that up until that point we had not dealt with.

—————

As opposed to press releases, e-mails, and text alerts, social media is completely different. With social, if you are doing it right of course, it is a live dialogue with your audience. They can question you, they can commend you, they can condemn you. There is absolutely no hiding.

Aside from the actual decision/announcement itself, the most intensive work a social media professional will do is addressing the lead-up to the actual decision/announcement. Here was the deal: We canceled classes and closed campus on Monday. We then delayed classes on Tuesday. On both Sunday and Monday we started receiving inquiries regarding the status of the next day several hours before the decision. A social media program simply can’t ignore the questions and concerns. On both days, we made sure to let our audience know that we were aware of the situation and that an announcement would be coming soon.

Right when decisions were made, we made sure to post the information on social media. Our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat accounts carried an approriate version of the announcement. Once the posts went live, the engagement blew up.

Sunday’s announcement to cancel classes on Monday was popular. Pretty much our whole audience voiced approval. Don’t think that means a social media employee is finished, however. People (again rightfully so) want to know how the decision impacts them. Questions ranging from dining service hours to the work schedule of employees to shuttle service availability to anything else you could think of were all asked. It was my goal to make sure not one question went unanswered.

Questions come from everywhere. On the main post. In the inbox. Off of other posts not related to the subject…and these are just on Facebook! It is easy to get a little overwhelmed because when you refresh your social media accounts, the inquiries keep building up. But it is crucial to just buckle down and respond.

Monday was more challenging. The decision to delay classes was not popular with our commuter population. Once again, I made it a priority to respond to each post. If you let it play with your head, the unhappy comments can really start to wear on you. But I tried to not let it get to me. I knew the people commenting were in tough positions. With support for the decision but with empathy for those students who had to decide whether or not to travel to campus, I did my best to provide a response to each person. I knew I couldn’t please each social media user with my reply but at the very least I could confirm with them that Coastal saw and read their comments.

The texts of encouragement from co-workers and the support of my fiance, along with my love for #CCU, gave me an extra drive to do the best possible job I could with the situation. I felt bad knowing that a portion of our social media audience was angry and disappointed but I also kept in mind that regardless of the decision that was made, some people were not going to be happy. Such is the nature of higher education.

Even tweets from sympathetic students helped!

Even tweets from sympathetic students helped!

Did I do everything perfectly the past couple days? Heck no!! When you respond to hundreds of comments, sometimes a reply doesn’t come out the way you wish it would have. I hope to improve next time. But with the assurance that I did try my absolute best at the time, I can sleep well tonight. Yep, social media isn’t just about posting photos and giving shoutouts. Don’t Blink.