7 Tips on Crisis Communication Every Business Should Know


Lessons from Upstate Social Sessions 2017

Last month I attended Upstate Social Sessions, a day-long conference in Rochester, NY focused on social media. The event, now in its third year, included presentations by national and local professionals who have used social media successfully in their fields. A favorite session among attendees was “Don’t @ Me: Navigate Controversy, Conversation and Comments.” 

Rochester media legend Tom Proietti moderated the panel discussion, which featured three speakers:

  • Tianna Mañón, editor in chief at Open Mic Rochester and reporter at WXXI
  • John Mackowiak, public relations practitioner for Martin Davison PR, an affiliate of The Martin Group
  • Arien Rozelle, assistant professor of communication at St. John Fisher College

The panelists discussed how companies can respond to online criticism and navigate complex issues in a way that best serves their audience. Here are seven important tips:


1. Have a crisis communication plan.

Establishing a communication strategy for crisis situations will save your company time and headaches long term. When developing your strategy, think of the consequences of every action, and know the types of issues that will arise. Ultimately, said John, your communication plan should reflect your brand and values.

Your plan should answer the following questions:

  • When will you respond? (Which scenarios demand a response and which do not?)
  • How will you respond? (What’s the message?)
  • Where will you respond? (Will you distribute a press release, make a statement on social media—and if so, which channel(s), or reply to individuals in a private message?)
  • Who will respond? (Internally, who is responsible for crafting and sending out the communication? Externally, will the message come from your collective company, or the CEO?)
  • Will you continue the dialogue? (Will you accept comments/questions on social media, or provide an email address or help line to answer additional questions?)
  • Who is in charge of internal communication? (Who will inform the rest of the team of what’s going on, and when?)

John also stressed that social media managers need to be part of the crisis response team. Even if the problem didn’t originate online (maybe there were complaints to customer service or an incident at a live event), chances are the conversation will move online at some point. The individuals in charge of your social media presence need to be kept in the loop.


2. Anticipate comments and questions.

Your crisis communication plan should include responses to known or expected issues. What questions might people have about your product? How might customers react to a major change in the company? Being aware of what your audience cares about and how they think will help you satisfactorily address their concerns.

This knowledge can also help you prevent criticism before it happens. Tianna offered some advice in this regard: “Imagine the person who would disagree with your message 100%, and then write it in a way that they can’t disagree.”

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3. Recognize legitimate criticism.

Before responding to any type of online criticism, first think: Can anything good come of this?

The panelists agreed that it is best to ignore basic attacks. These include personal attacks, or hateful or irrelevant comments left by oft-anonymous internet “trolls” who are just looking to provoke a retaliatory response.

However, it is also important to recognize when criticism is legitimate. Rather than attacking an employee or your company, does the comment focus on a specific position or action taken by your company? In these cases, it is better to step in and explain your point of view, said Arien. Otherwise, you can appear to be evading or ignoring the issue.

Tianna added that a critical comment can be an opportunity in disguise: “A lot of times we’re not receptive to criticism, we take it in a bad way and don’t think that conversation can happen, but sometimes it can.”

WROC-TV’s Adam Chodak also talked about turning a negative into a positive. He recommended thanking critics: “Grab that criticism and show respect to it, because that’s disarming. Gratitude has real power to it.”


4. Don’t comment on every issue.

In this age of instantaneous and ubiquitous communication, businesses often feel compelled to comment on current events or issues. But be discerning. Your company does not need to take a stance on every subject, especially if it is not relevant to your business or audience.

Following your customers and stakeholders on social media, reading what they read, and finding out what they care about will help you gain a better sense of what types of conversations merit your input. And if your audience has something to say, make sure their voices are heard and included.


5. Monitor social media.

You can’t respond to a crisis that you don’t know exists. To keep informed of the conversation, it is crucial that businesses monitor not only their own social media profiles, but the whole of social media and even the rest of the web. Not everyone who mentions your company online will do you the favor of tagging (@) you—you have to be able to find these comments.

Luckily, there are a range of tools that can help; Brand24, Mention, Talkwalker, Meltwater, and Hootsuite Insights are a few. Marketing automation platforms like HubSpot have their own capabilities. At the very least, set up Google Alerts for your company name and high-level employees.


6. Have written community guidelines.

To help guide the conversation on your website or social media pages, John recommended creating a set of community guidelines that is easy for visitors to view. What kinds of discussion are acceptable? What types of comments or language will be removed? Include 3-5 concise bullet points at the beginning, with more detail below. Make this a living document that’s part of your everyday conversation among your team.


7. Educate employees.

Sometimes individual employees will want to respond to a criticism or comment on a certain issue. You want them to be an active brand ambassador on social media, but you also want to make sure that their involvement doesn’t start or amplify a problem.

Have a policy for employee participation in social media, and enforce it, stressed Arien and John. Try to eliminate any confusion as to when and how they should (or shouldn’t) comment.

It is also important to educate employees about pertinent topics, Tianna said. In terms of company culture, think about how you can make your company friendlier to discussion about these issues.


At Launch, we help B2B companies manage their social media marketing and online presence. In addition to building brand awareness and generating leads for clients, we help them stay on top of the conversation, delivering timely and appropriate responses to their audience.

Make sure you’re the one controlling your company’s message. Talk to us.

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