This is the paper I submitted for partial fulfilment of the requirements of my Certificate of Public Relations through the Continuing Education Division at Ryerson University in April 2020. This is the paper in its entirety, excluding bibliography. If you have additional concerns or questions please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to Prepare Your Business for a Social Media Crisis
Public relations can support small businesses to insulate the risk of being online. I wanted to know if there was a secret recipe for small businesses to apply to avoid a crisis situation like a firestorm, morality violation, hashtag hijacking, or other secondary crisis communication scenarios. There is not a simple recipe. We can use themes from public relations practice to build stronger small business brands that may be less likely to get in social media crisis or may be more able to recover without as much reputational damage.
There is a lot of pressure to figure out the algorithm, go viral and create content that converts – but at what cost? Being well-known can be great for success, but it comes with an increased risk for morality violation and response from the public (Zheng, et al., 2018). Some messages might put you at risk of being perceived by others as violating social norms and moral conduct (Scholz & Smith, 2019; Zheng, et al, 2018). In these situations, a strong response from an unintended audience can sway your audience’s opinion and potentially impact your business’s reputation (Wakefield & Knighton, 2019).
For this paper, I read on Situational Crisis Communication Theory (Coombs, 2007; Coombs 2018) and other emerging social media theories. But, I didn’t feel a response strategies was the best choice to support small businesses in preparing for a potential social media crisis. Instead, I believe small businesses need to prepare in other ways by reinforcing their values, developing internal communications, creating networks, learning about their audience, and knowing that messages travel. These themes were developed based on case studies of crisis situations, conversations with public relations practitioners, and best practices learnt during the program at Ryerson University for a Certificate in Public Relations.
There was a moment in writing this paper, where I wondered if the risks of being on social media were too big for some businesses, and that maybe they should reconsider social media. But here we are, in a new world of physical distancing, in the era of COVID-19 and being online is the main communication tool we use to connect with people at home. In Italy, Facebook (Schultz, 2020) reported 50% increase in the use of messaging, doubling of Instagram and Facebook Live views, and upwards of 70% increase in use of the application mid-March, and it can only be assumed that similar trends will continue across the globe as we shelter in place, and close-up shop. The need to be available through social media is incredibly prevalent for many small businesses. Social media can be a very important asset, but we must not forget that it is also our greatest vulnerability (Zheng, et al., 2018).
For this paper, I interviewed Alyson Gourley-Cramer (personal communication, February 14, 2020), Joel McKay (personal communication, February 20, 2020), and Sarah Artis (personal communication, March 20, 2020). Alyson was previously the Executive Director of Communications at the College of New Caledonia and currently practices privately as the principal consultant at Monogram Communications. Joel McKay is a public relations professional and journalist who is the CEO of Northern Development Initiative Trust. Sarah is a communications professional from Terrace BC with Sarah & Company Communications, and previous interim Communications Coordinator for Haisla Nation.
Social Media & Public Relations Theory
Academically, there is social media research in public relations that is very specific to one type of scenario. Social media changes. Platforms, audiences, generations are quickly adapting and finding new ways to consume, engage and build relationships on a plethora of social platforms. The hardest thing is to keep up with all these changes (Triantafillidou & Yannas, 2020). Early 2000 blog-focused content arguably irrelevant to 2020, as we change how we like to consume content and the platforms that dominate (Eriksson, 2019; Fisher-Liu, et al., 2012; Schultz, et al, 2011). For example, there is a lot of content about the power of Twitter in crisis management (Glatnz & Benoit, 2018; North, et al., 2018). But if we look at the Canadian social-media space, we learn Facebook dominates the conversation and Twitter is on the decline (CIRA, 2019). This highlights the limitations on the applicability of general public relations research as it might be applied to other demographics, niches, regions, and periods-of-time. If Canadians aren’t on Twitter, does that mean it’s still a viable crisis tool?
I approached each case study, theory, and scenario with an open mind that the lesson might not be a direct application of the process, but rather a continuation of important human behavioural elements that public relations can use to strengthen relationships that businesses and organisations thrive on. I believe social media is not a new form of communication but rather an extension of our offline relationships. We must approach social media communication the same way we approach offline communication – with transparency, emotion, and one-to-one connections. Building a social media presence is about fostering important relationships to support you when you need them (Gourley-Cramer, S., personal communication, February 14, 2020; Han, et al., 2018; Ip, et al., 2018; Ott & Theunissen, 2018). Be human, not robotic, in building these relationships. Express yourself with mixed emotions (Xiao, et al., 2018). Be who you want to be, because we can see when things don’t line up. Your greatest strength is not in mimicking the work of others but making social media work for you in your unique situation based on the actual needs of your audience.
Small Business Foundations for Social Media
I have watched several businesses crumble from a crisis fueled by a disgruntled customer with influence on a social media platform. These situations are not avoidable. They happen to the best of us. Sometimes, someone takes you to town about past wrongs or current claims of perceived morality violations within your business or personal life. They may or may not be true. They may or may not be relevant. But the words start telling a story that you may need to pay attention to and address. Why do some businesses’ reputation crumble when a crisis happens online? And why do some survive?
It is about making the right move to acknowledge the claims and correct the claims without denial or blame (Ott & Theunissen, 2015). But, it is also about the strength of their business values and their earned reputation that allowed them to continue to be in business. They have social license to operate despite the crisis. Not every business is set up to respond and issue a correction. You need to have existing supports in place to ensure that you can move forward, reinforce your reputation, and not fall back into the same crisis on social media.
I believe that a business needs to start with these five themes from public relations to help insulate their risk of reputational demise from social media:
- Know your business values.
- Emphasize internal communications.
- Make friends – build peer networks.
- Learn who your audience is and how they use social media.
- Messages can travel and be found by unintended audiences.
I pulled these themes from my conversations with public relations practitioners, research this semester, previous coursework for this program, and my own experience working within social media for brands. I believe these are things that every business can do today to reduce the risk of social media.
Know your business values.
Ground yourself and your business in a consistent identity of your values. This means knowing what topics are important to you, what topics you want to talk about, and where you draw the line (if any) on certain topics. Huang-Horowitz (2015) urged small business to refrain from creating messages until they know who they are because backpedaling and reshaping the formed identity can be challenge for businesses if they decide to pivot.
I would encourage you, a small business, to write out the key message values for your business – just like we do for formal communication plans with public relations. These values and messages provide consistent brand image that reinforces reputation among key audiences and that can used by your employees or contractors, or anyone else you bring in to support your business. Take a moment to ensure that messaging is consistent and in align with values before you start or continue with social media content creation. And yes, this means evaluating every piece of social media content for alignment with your values and brand before hitting the publish button. This can help ensure that you don’t land yourself in hot water when a member of the audience perceives a violation of your brands core values because you hit share without thinking about who and where it was going. Not all content needs to be created or shared.
If you’re a business with a strong sense of corporate social responsibility (CSR), social media can become more volatile place for you (Avidar, 2017; Eriksson, 2018). This happened with Thinx, a social enterprise, when they experienced pressure online because their consumers perception of them as a business and the real stories of the corporate work environment differed (Ip, et al., 2018). People, both direct audience and indirect audiences, felt deceived and disappointed in the brand. This would lead to a direct impact on Thinx including a decline in sales, reputation crisis and a leadership change.
Socially responsible companies may struggle if their ideas are not yet adopted by mainstream culture or push at changing cultural norms (Avidar, 2017). One of the greatest threats is not knowing where to draw the line on what and how you talk about issues – especially those that could be perceived as morally conflicting. Be cautious about sudden unexplained changes in your values or messaging as this can trigger an unintended reaction from your primary audience (Huang-Horowitz, 2015; Trayner, 2017).
What you say and what you do need to match up. Be consistent in knowing your values but putting them into action. This is an important first step for most businesses because we forget or get caught up in other things. Social media can be an easy place to just publish cute and funny things, but what if one day someone perceives that things doesn’t line up. Think before you create and publish. Ground yourself in your values and know where the line starts and ends.
Emphasize Internal Communications
Internal communications feels like the afterthought of public relations. But, it’s one of the most important communication tactics we need to be using regardless of the size of the business or organisation. Everybody within the business needs to be onboard with the values and messaging in order to avoid confusion by external audiences. And the best way is to focus on the communication you are having with employees, contractors, and other internal relationships with your business. This starts with policies and ends with the basics of human relationships.
Big or small, everyone needs communication policies, including social media guidelines, to support online behaviour and expectations around online branding (Gourley-Cramer, A., personal communication, February 14, 2020; Holtz, 2004). The internet can be a vulnerability with employees if we don’t have clear expectations on what they can or can’t say. Create social media policies that empower employees to be your greatest influencers and champions. Navigating this can be challenging. I work with small businesses on social media and feel that these policies need to broad but unique. They need to offer boundaries, but also encourage employees to be creative in ways that align with company values. For most small businesses, you want your employees to be able to answer the questions, react to your posts, and be engaged with your online brand – and not just because they work for you, but because they live and breathe your business. That starts with clear and concise and internal communication that makes them feel involved and invested.
Internal communications continue beyond policies to the very basic day-to-day, and long-term planning of your business. Start with basic conversations, or meetings, about where you are and what you want to achieve. Branch out into other communication tools as needed to ensure that everyone is on the same page and living the same vision.
And part of internal communications is also providing the support and training to employees to communicate better (Holtz, 2004). As a small business owner, don’t overlook the value in improving the communication skills of your employees. This can be as simple learning to communicate as a team, to bigger skills like social media and digital communication. These skills can elevate your business and ensure it is adaptable for growth. You never know who might need to communicate in a crisis. We’ve all gone social during COVID-19 and for some restaurants that means your chef might need to know how to use Facebook Live to connect with your customers and encourage them to order take-out. Try to find ways to grow and learn before the skill is needed.
Make Friends – the importance of peer networks.
We often focus on external relationships with stakeholders and internal relationships with employees, but your small business can also benefit from peer relationships in building reputation and social media. We all need friends to help us at some point. There is this need to make friends before you need them because you might need to have your reputation reaffirmed, or collaborate to grow, or some other sort of support both on and offline (Erikkson, 2018; McKay, J., personal communication, February 20, 2020). These friendships and relationships are important to the social media game and in providing additional communication support – especially if you are a one-person operation.
One really important aspect of buliding relationships with people you trust for a small business is that they can provide a resource to evaluate and discuss messages before release. My conversations with Joel McKay (personal communication, February 20, 2020) and Sarah Artis (personal communication, March 20, 2020) both connected on this need to have people who can help you know what could go wrong with a message before you release. For some businesses, that can be done in house. If you need to make a change, or an announcement, there is incredible value in having somebody you trust review an idea with you and toss as much mud at it, as Joel McKay analogized in our conversation.
Relationships built with peers can continue to be a social media asset to build and protect your reputation. Don’t underestimate the need of popularity to help messages travel, and guard against some types of firestorms.
Learn who your audience is and how they use social media.
Social media is an incredible tool to use for public relations and marketing, but if your ideal audience doesn’t use social media in the way that you want to use social media, then it might not work. I alluded to this earlier – we can talk about how Twitter is a tool for crisis communication, but if your audience does not know how to use Twitter, then it is not going to be an effective tool for your business for marketing, crisis communication, or relationships.
I read many different perspectives about which platform works best in what situation, and I take all with a grain of salt. There are so many exceptions to the rules based on the country you live in or the generation you’re trying to engage. I don’t think hard and fast rules is the best choice for developing social media best practices. Instead we should focus on getting to know our audience by engaging and interacting with them on social media – just start somewhere or do a little analysis. Two-way dialogue is encouraged for other reasons, such as building trust and transparency, but it should be used to learn how to effectively communicate with your audience including finding out where and how they like to engage on social media (Eriksson, 2018; Ott and Theunissen, 2014; Ihlen & Levenshus, 2018). This is superficially about what works and doesn’t work based on your expectations and goals. We can also respond to crisis by creating responses based on the reactions and needs of our consumer or audience (Fraustino & Fisher-Liu, 2018; Lee, et al., 2018). Talking with your audience and analyzing how they interact with social can be a great asset to learn how to connect and respond.
If your audience ignores a blog but interacts with a Facebook post of text, then take that experience and learn from it. If nobody ever watches an Instagram Live, then maybe something else is the best choice for your people. Create social content not because it’s best practice but because your people interact with it. But also approach with caution, remembering that the comment section (or other reactions) is not an inclusive sampling of your audience’s reaction (Sandlin & Gracyalny, 2018) and might be influenced by unintended audiences (Wakefield & Knighton, 2019). Be open but leery.
Don’t forget to check your own personal bias about the need for social media. Many of us overestimate the need for social media (McKay, J., personal communication, February 20, 2020; Navvrow, et al, 2016). Think about the return on investment, both in the long and short. Just because the return or value is null right now, doesn’t mean a world pandemic won’t happen where we all need to be online and finding new ways to shop with small businesses. There is value in creating space for conversation not because you need it, but because you might need it (Eriksson, 2018; Ott and Theunissen, 2014).
Also, check your attitude. An interesting note from Al-Kandari at al. (2019) is that if you think social media can achieve the objectives you want then you’re more likely to achieve them. If you think social media isn’t going to work, then it might not work out either. This was from a study of Arab Banks using Instagram, it really resonates with me and my personal experiences working with small business owners and social media.
Be aware that messages can travel and be found by unintended audiences.
Create messages for your audience, yes. And in marketing, they talk about the need to stay true to your brand despite critique by people who aren’t customers (Scholz & Smith, 2019). And Scholz & Smith encouraged “brands to employ assertive response strategies as long as the brand has an ideological positioning that resonates with customers core values” (2019, p 1127). That’s all fine and dandy, until someone convinces your audience that these messages are moral violations and causes uproar with your people. This can threaten your brands social responsibility threatening your reputation and business (Brunton, et al., 2017, Eriksson, 2018; Ip et. al, 2018). You need to know your values and if you are okay with a message going beyond your audience when you hit publish on social media. Seems simple, but we often forget that the world is watching.
The biggest vulnerability in messaging is unintended audiences. The spread of a message is both good and bad. It is how businesses grow, but it opens up risk if others perceive immorality or judgement and create fuss that threatens integrity and reputation. Wakefield and Knighton (2018) discussed how public relations can use Balance Theory to discover unintended audiences. And whether you decided to take a marketing approach or more CSR approach to social media messages, it’s important to think about the friends of your target audience.
Who are the other people who see the message you target at one audience and what might their response be? If friends of your target audience have a negative reaction to the message, don’t underestimate their influence to shift the perception of your intended audience. If other social groups see and respond to the message, be prepared for activists or other groups of people to take over something as simple as hashtag or the comment section (Sanderson, et al., 2015; Scholz & Smith, 2019; Woods, 2018). I want to say that messages traveling is the least of your worries if you have a solid grasp on your values and the support of employees and peers – but some mistakes get made. Be prepared to know that it can happen.
We are all vulnerable to a social media crisis. Whether you are small business or a person on social media, your reputation could be at risk if others with influence create a ruckus about you because of some perception that you did a wrongdoing or some perceived immorality they claim happen. It doesn’t take much, and what to do next is a topic for another day, but I believe that you need to start by building and strengthening your values, your employees, your network, your audience, and your messages to help insulate from a potential social media crisis situation.
And a social media firestorm doesn’t discriminate. It happens with feel good projects. While writing this paper, I received a call from a friend whose Facebook post went viral (Grose, B., personal communication, March 24, 2020). She was struggling because unintended audiences found her message and began using it in unintended ways for unintended gains. Somehow this led to a firestorm of commentary in a Facebook group that threatened her reputation. But, in my conversation with her, she thrives in this situation because her brand has always been consistent in her values, and this has given her the reputation and the network of peers that she needed to come out unscathed by that storm.
Not all social media crisis situations will impact your reputation and there are a variety of strategies to manage these outbreaks, or just walk away from them. I did doubt Situational Crisis Communication Theory (Coombs, 2007) for its applicability to modern social media communication. But I found myself referencing it in my conversation with my friend, because our first need is to protect our stakeholders, and the unintended audiences that she was dealing with was not her first priority despite the pressure felt. Unintended audiences can cause harm, but we must assess each crisis situation individually for the impact it could have on our audiences because they are the most important key to our reputation.
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