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social media crisis simulation

A crisis simulation session at the SXSW conference. Photo credit: Polpeo

Hospitals and police and fire departments have long conducted disaster drills to prepare for earthquakes, hurricanes, plane or train crashes, and other tragic events. These first-responder organizations have found there’s no better way to prepare for a crisis than realistic simulations.

Using simulations to train PR and corporate communications teams for a social media crisis is now gaining traction. A cottage industry of firms offering social media crisis simulations has developed. Some of the companies offering social media crisis training include HootSuite, Polpeo, Social Simulator, and SayItSocial.

ING Bank of Canada went to HootSuite for training to prepare for the announcement of its new name, Tangerine Bank, according to The Wall Street Journal. HootSuite showered the bank’s PR staff with negative comments. One wrote: “Nice redesign. I could have done that in my sleep. I’m sure you spent millions too.”

“Give it a chance, it might grow on you,” the bank responded.

ING Direct CEO Peter Aceto watched the crisis simulation. His presence proved that top executives, in addition to PR and social media teams, worry about how their companies might respond to an outbreak of social media attacks.

HootSuite has also provided training to PPL Corp., a utility-holding company in Pennsylvania, and Guelph Hydro Electric Systems Inc. in Ontario, Canada.

An Eyewitness Account of a Simulation

The Verge provided a first-hand account of a Polpeo crisis simulation offered at the SXSW conference. In the fast-moving session, a fictitious CEO gets drunk, gropes women at a bar, and has an affair with an unpaid intern. He and his girlfriend release ill-advised “tweets.” (Note: That seems like a reasonable simulation scenario for SSXW, one of the most exuberant (wildest?) of conferences.)

In a simulator meant to resemble Twitter and Facebook, members of the assembled social media teams – strangers to each other chosen from conference attendees — frantically scrambled to respond to a wave of negative comments about the inappropriate behavior.

At one point, the Polpeo trainer advised a team to find a leader and direction. Team members considered the advice and returned to their strategy of shouting across the table at each other. Gradually, individuals agreed to assume specialized tasks such as community management and press release writing.

Most large corporations will want to invest in the drills, The Verge concluded.

“Whether you’re a person or a business, you’re never more than one tweet away from total disaster,” it stated. “ Billion-dollar companies may still scoff at the idea of dropping everything to respond to some angry tweets — and yet if there’s anything we’ve learned online this decade, it’s that the vengeful mobs that form on social networks can be terribly effective.”

A Critique of Crisis Responses

Polpeo later critiqued the teams’ performances and offered recommendations.

Determine a strategy. Teams responded quickly but possibly at the risk of lacking a coherent approach.

Beware broadcasting. Broadcasting responses to what might be a localized crisis can spread the crisis to a larger audience.

Don’t sound formal. A formal, corporate tone of voice, which is common in traditional media, can be damaging on social media. Practice “socializing” formal statements for social media.

Be honest. If you try to fudge an issue, it will be obvious. Be careful not to appear as if you’re avoiding the issue, even if your response is true.

Pick your battles carefully. Responding to people with an agenda that you’re unlikely to change can cost you time and energy that could be better spent elsewhere. Monitor these groups carefully, and respond appropriately.

Personalize messages. Conduct one-to-one conversations if possible.

Remember your employees. Keep them informed and help them to answer difficult questions that they might get from friends and family.

Remember that posts live on. Deleting a post wrongly posted to your corporate account is of course the right thing to do. But remember that posts can live on through screenshots. You’ll still need to address the issue quickly.

Beware of hashtags. Response teams often use the hashtags created to identify a crisis. That can have the unintended consequence of spreading news of the crisis.

Bottom Line: Simulated social media crisis sessions can prepare PR pros and other communicators for an actual crisis. Companies have emerged to meet the need. Larger organizations may wish to consider using social media crisis simulation to train their communications teams in effective crisis management methods. As with first-responder simulations, self-developed disaster drills may serve the training purpose though self-developed simulations are unlikely to be as comprehensive or as effective as commercially developed programs.