Dusting off the Crisis Communication Plan in the Wake of Social Media

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Dr. Alisa Agozzino is an assistant professor of public relations at Ohio Northern University. Dr. Agozzino’s main research interest lies in social media tools within the public relations field. Her current research agenda examines how social media impacts different industries. From nonprofit, to admissions offices, to public relations professionals, Dr. Agozzino is exploring how those using social media tools are doing so to effectively reach their target audiences in order to build and maintain mutually beneficial Alisa Agozzino 1relationships.

Dr. Agozzino and Firestorm Content Editor, Candace Kaiser, were recently published in the Journal of School Public Relations. Their chapter, entitled “Social Media as a Practical Approach in Engaging Key Stakeholders in School Crisis Communication Plans: A Qualitative Analysis,” focuses on the use of social media in crisis situations.

The Journal of School Public Relations is a quarterly publication providing research, analysis, case studies and descriptions of best practices in six critical areas of school administration: public relations, school and community relations, community education, communication, conflict management/resolution and human resources management.


Dusting off the Crisis Communication Plan in the Wake of Social Media


In the 24/7, real-time world we live in, it is almost impossible to avoid some type of crisis. Although the spectrum of these events is vast and wide, practitioners need to look at crises as not just problems, but opportunities to grow and learn. By examining the entire process, and planning pro-actively, communication professionals are better equipped to lead and thrive during this potentially crippling experience.

Unfortunately, no one is immune to crisis situations. Schools are no exception. As part of a research study, my colleague Candace Kaiser (now working with crisis management firm, Firestorm) and I conducted in-depth interviews with 12 school communication professionals. Interviews attempted to uncover some often thought about, but seldom shared, best practices in the development and implementation of a school crisis clockcommunication plan.

In our research we found some key findings. One particularly important finding centered around the use of social media. It seems like social has taken over our whole world, however our results indicated that while social media tools are being used, these tools have not replaced traditional tools. We discovered many school communication practitioners are using a hybrid approach to effectively reach all key stakeholders. Practitioners indicated they are not heavily reliant on either, but instead use both social and traditional tools, based on what made sense for their individual target audiences. This approach proved to be the most efficient when the crisis hit.

One of questions we asked stated, “Do you feel crisis planning has become more complicated or more necessary than in the past?” Looking back, this is a pretty loaded question, and honestly included two separate questions so I will discuss them separately.

First the question regarding whether crisis planning has become more complicated was confirmed. The addition of social media to the mix has made it so. Because of a sense of urgency during a crisis, social media has made anyone with a social account a participant in the event itself. From the nosy neighbor next to the school, to the teen with a smartphone, information can travel and be posted almost instantaneously. And, when momma bear’s children are involved, this adds an entire new level of urgency.

One of the professionals pointed out it is not just the crisis that has become more complicated, but in reality armchair quarterbacks have migrated from sports to crisis communication. We now have crisis “experts” pontificating from the comfort of their homes with a smartphone. These crisis critics, sometimes millions of miles from the situation, evaluate and criticize during heat of the crisis, thus adding more stress in an already stressful situation.

As practitioners, it is important to remember to not engage in debates justifying your actions during the crisis. Real-time reports that remain factual and transparent will serve communication professionals much better than debating and engaging with those looking for a fight.

Another communication professional pointed out the shear number of platforms now available on which to engage with stakeholders during a crisis have also complicated the planning process. An social aggregator site, such as Hootsuite, can help manage this vast majority of social media platforms, allowing practitioners to work more efficiently and quickly in a crisis situation.

word cloudFinally, when asked if practitioners felt crisis planning was more necessary in the wake of social media, most responded with a resounding YES! Although crisis plans have always been necessary in school systems, now more than ever those plans need to pro-actively updated.

Many of the participants in the study cited time as the main concern for the greater necessity of dusting off the crisis communication plans and continually updating. Watching and learning from others when they experience crises, helps us all remain current. To be better prepared, crisis plans should detail step-by-step guidelines on how to handle concerns that, if not handled properly, can turn into greater problem. By having all the necessary information in one place professionals who encounter a crisis situation are able to save valuable time when it is needed most.

No crisis plan is ever going to be all-encompassing, however practitioners in schools are now better equipped to handle a variety of crisis situations with pro-active crisis plans that are regularly updated.  When is the last time you dusted off the planbook? Are you positioned to lead and thrive in a crisis, or are you at risk of being crippled by the situation? There is no time like the present to position your organization to succeed and grow in a crisis.

To learn more about social media risk and crisis communication, schedule a demo today.

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