5 Best Practices for Managing Crises on Social Media

September 16th, 2015

By Michelle M. Maresh-Fuehrer

Social media has had a measurable impact on crisis communication. From the increased visibility and impact of a crisis to the fact that “every day people” create the news agenda, it is no surprise that the public’s expectations for organizations have changed and organizations are now being held accountable for maintaining an effective social media presence. It seems unfitting, then, to consider that only 85% of colleges and universities have crisis communication plans and an even slimmer 59% address the use of social media in those plans. With this statistic in mind, I was elated to be asked to co-present (with Michelle Baum of Moxie + Mettle) a social media workshop for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ (AASCU) Summer Council of Presidents in Denver.

The individuals who attended our session were eager to discuss the changing landscape of crisis communication and the expectations that students, parents, and community members have for University Presidents before, during, and after a crisis event. Although our session was designed for university administrators, the five best practices for preventing and managing crises on social media that we shared are applicable to any organization:

1) Know Your Public’s Expectations

The results of a study commissioned by the American Red Cross in 2010 found that 69% of adult participants expected social media sites to be monitored during a crisis, and 74% expected help to come less than an hour after posting on social media! The takeaway is that the public expects organizations to be present on social media during a crisis. The public expects timely and individualized responses and will complain—loudly—if this expectation is violated.

2) Develop Social Media Policies

Does your organization currently have an established/updated social media policy for its employees? Do you have a training program for your employees (or any individuals) who represent the institution on social media? Establishing rules for personal and organizational social media use may prevent many crises for occurring. The University of Houston has an effective social media policy that promotes individual expression, but includes legal and advised guidelines for employees and students.

3) Utilize Social Media as a Prevention Tool

Monitoring social media is an effective way to prevent crises. Utilizing a program like Hootsuite, organizations can see their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts on one screen (or “dashboard”), schedule outgoing posts, and set up key word alerts to help them track when they are being discussed by the public. Your organization’s social media manager should be monitoring potential crises at nearby facilities, changes in the cultural/political/social landscape, and indirect and direct stakeholder interactions. If an issue emerges—for example, a pattern of complaints from your public—you should be prepared to respond to those comments (never delete an angry comment!) by acknowledging the issue, apologizing for the situation, and opening the door for the individual(s) to speak with you directly about their concerns. If a rumor emerges, you should respond—openly and honestly—in the channel (say, YouTube) that the rumor spread and link your response to other channels to contain the situation.

4) Write/Update Your Crisis Philosophy Statement

A crisis philosophy statement is a promise pertaining to how your organization will behave during a crisis event. This statement should be written using goals that are consistent with your mission statement. For example, Advanced Auto Parts’ mission claims, “our friendly, knowledgeable and professional staff will help inspire, educate and problem-solve for our customers.” During a crisis, how will staff ensure that they are perceived as friendly, knowledgeable, and professional? How might they educate and problem-solve in a way that will satisfy customers? Perhaps their crisis philosophy statement could be:

Advanced Auto Parts takes pride in our friendly, knowledgeable and professional staff that inspires, educates and solves problems for our customers. During a crisis situation, we will communicate openly and honestly with the public providing updates as they become known to us. We will strive to solve problems to the customers’ satisfaction by answering questions that we receive in a timely manner.

This statement should be included in your crisis plan and may be distributed to employees or posted on your official website to proactively communicate your stance on crisis communication. Just remember: If you make a promise, you must keep that promise!

5) Practice Crafting Effective Social Media Responses

The public expects your social media response to be spotless! Some helpful tips for crafting an effective social media response include:

  • Always respond to–and never delete!—comments
  • Keep your message brief and provide a link to a longer statement, if necessary
  • Incorporate hashtags on Twitter and Instagram
  • Consider the cultural needs of your public (Should you also draft a response in Spanish?)
  • Choose the channel stakeholders trust (Is your public on Periscope? Be sure to respond there.)
  • Choose the channel where the crisis broke (Did a video appear on YouTube? Respond with a YouTube video.)
  • Provide a timely, honest, consistent (with your mission statement/crisis philosophy), and empathetic response that invites the public to interact with you. Think about what you would expect from another organization during a crisis event.
  • Provide the public with the appropriate steps that they need to take to protect themselves, if applicable.
  • Explain corrective measures that are being taken by your organization. 


Michelle M. Maresh-Fuehrer is an Associate Professor of Communication, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. She can be reached at: michelle.maresh-fuehrer@tamucc.edu.