Proposal: new guidelines for social media during a crisis

Edward Norton, Fight Club

Social media is a relatively new phenomenon, but those of us who work in it daily tend to forget that. In addition, newbies are joining in all the time.

This makes for an exciting and, at times, frustrating experience for communities. Some veterans scoff at the inexperience and mistakes of others, writing it off to insensitivity or stupidity.

Everyone, take a deep breath.

I have admitted time and again that I am always learning. That I am occasionally fumbling, making it up as I go along. That I have and will make mistakes.

This past week has seen a number of intense crises in Boston and West, Texas. I watched social media light up with updates, opinions, retweets, accusations, finger-pointing and business as usual. Some were shared with the spirit of helpfulness, others with a note of disdain.

We were all beginners once. I try to keep that in mind when training others and when seeing mistakes people make online.

I propose a few guidelines on how brands can handle social media when crises occur.

1. Suspend auto-tweets. To this end, make sure team members have access to scheduling programs so any of them can temporarily turn them off if the assigned person is away from his computer or his phone.

2. Adopt a gentle tone. In sensitive times, be sensitive to your audience. Listen carefully, respond gently.

3. If you make a mistake, apologize and move on. This rule applies 24/7, but it never hurts to remind people. Sometimes, the two most powerful words you can tweet are “I’m sorry.”

4. Offer to talk offline. Technology can be limiting, either in the cycle of type-send-wait-read-type-send or in character limits or in absence of tone and facial expressions. Invite unhappy fans to talk by phone or by email — I prefer phone, since at least it allows for vocal inflections.

5. Know your audience. Pity the company that thinks its audience is just like them. We’re “fun” so they must be fun. We’re “edgy” so they must be edgy. By understanding who your audience is, their values and their problems, you can almost always serve them well and beg forgiveness for the occasional slip-up.

It’s easy to forget that the creatures behind social media updates are, in fact, mostly human beings (and the occasional robot). Can we get back to a more human and humane way to interact, even when tensions are high?

What are your thoughts on brands using social media in times of crisis?

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About Wade Kwon

Wade Kwon is conference director for Y’all Connect. See his full bio.