6 Tips for Handling Breaking Crises on Twitter

Dallas Lawrence is the chief global digital strategist for Burson-Marsteller, one of the world’s leading public relations and communications firms. He is a Mashable contributor on emerging media trends, online reputation management and digital issue advocacy. You can connect with him on Twitter @dallaslawrence.

If the past year has taught us anything about reputation management in the social age, it’s that the past year has not taught us anything. Time and time again in 2011, the same missteps and misunderstandings lead to the same predictably painful reputational outcomes for individuals, brands and organizations.

Despite widely discussed and accepted social media best practices, many of the most significant crisis poster children of 2011 failed to deploy the basic digital tactics necessary to cauterize potential threats before they metastasized into full-blown reputational disasters.

Some may be tempted to fault the dizzying speed of digital change for the current sad state of crisis preparedness, but the reality is that the basic rules of effective communications have not changed for generations.

From Gutenburg to Zuckerberg, the principles of sincerity, transparency, accuracy and speed still largely determine success or failure in the court of public opinion. What has changed – and what will continue to evolve over time — are the platforms that we use to communicate these principles. No platform in 2011 had a more profound impact on crisis awareness and response than Twitter.

In 2012, as its audience continues to swell past 100 million active users, who send more than a quarter billion tweets daily, Twitter’s prominence – especially during times of crisis — will only continue to grow.

Here are six Twitter crisis tips every communications professional should review in the New Year.

1. Start With The Basics

The first step in 2012 may both be the easiest and possibly the most daunting: For those not yet on Twitter, the time has come to pull the trigger.

Even if your organization does have a Twitter account, you should assess if the current handle is appropriate for managing a crisis conversation. Establishing a separate and transparent Twitter presence for communicating corporate messaging and thought leadership – aside from branded, marketing-focused conversations — is critical if you are going to successfully manage a crisis or reputation in 140 characters or less. Furthermore, companies shouldn’t be polluting their happily massaged community with apologies, recall information or other critical commentary. Many companies now operate multiple accounts specifically to address the information needs of a diverse social marketplace.

For Twitter, one size definitely does not fit all and one Twitter account may not be sufficient for your communications needs.

2. Traditional Media Uses Twitter


A recent survey of approximately 500 journalists around the world found that approximately half of those polled use Twitter to source for stories. In times of crisis, reporters are turning to Twitter in greater numbers to see who is talking about the issue and to identify which sources would best complement their coverage.

In many cases, to be part of the story, you must already be part of the conversation on Twitter. And standard newspapers and magazines are not alone: Newswires like AP and Reuters also report important breaking news and international crises via Twitter. Know and engage your Reuters reporter and recognize that the moment his coverage goes live, your Twitter efforts will need to kick into high gear.

3. Fight for the Headline

Any PR person worth his mettle knows the value of a headline. In the digital space in 2012, fighting for the headline has taken on new meaning. With most news sites offering auto-generated suggested Twitter language for readers to post to their feeds via the retweet plug-in, many tweeters simply “read and retweet” articles using the suggested text.

Unfortunately, rather than invest the time to develop a 140-character synopsis reflective of the entire story, many people or businesses simply auto-populate the original headline, without concern for the false or misleading impression it can have when viewed out of context. An overwhelming number of Twitter users today simply snack on the 140-character content posted in their streams, which means a balanced and comprehensive headline has taken on even greater significance.

4. Video Rules

According to the most recent data from YouTube, more than 500 YouTube links are tweeted every minute. And this doesn’t account for the millions of additional video links embedded in blogs, news sites and other online platforms, which are then shared across Twitter.

Online video has already become one of the most powerful tools in the crisis manager’s arsenal, yet many fail to fully realize the real-time ability of video integrated with Twitter to break through a crowded online conversation. Having an immediately deployable video capability and identified spokesperson(s) ready to advance positive messaging, correct misinformation and engage consumers directly (with a real face, not a logo) can help to reshape perception and stall the advancement of a developing crisis situation in ways one-dimensional text simply cannot.

The question every crisis manger should be asking today is this: If you had a significant crisis occur on a Friday evening, how long would it take you to shoot, edit and tweet a video response?

5. Beware of Squatters

Twitter is still largely the Wild West of the social universe. As Rupert Murdoch’s wife discovered earlier this month, when it comes to transparency, not everyone is playing by the same rule book. Take the time now, before your moment in the spotlight, to audit your brand on Twitter (and throughout the digital space) and see who may be squatting on your trademark. You may be very surprised by what you find.

If there was one lesson learned from the BP oil spill disaster, it was that you need to own your story within Twitter before others hijack it from you. If you do find a squatter violating your Twitter space, Twitter has a well-established policy for reclaiming inappropriate accounts.

6. Don’t be Afraid to Advertise

With more than 250 million tweets flying across the Twittersphere every day, it is important to use every resource at your disposal to break through the incredibly crowded medium.

In times of crisis that require an immediate impact, Twitter’s suite of pay-for-play tools can help do just that. Twitter’s Sponsored Tweets can rapidly keep content at the top of search results, and can now place results at the top of user feeds. A particularly effective feature allows advertisers to target not only key search terms, but key users as well. By targeting based on likes and past conversation threads, Twitter’s timeline advertising allows advertisers to place Promoted Tweets in the timelines of followers and other Twitter users who share similar qualities.

The benefits of this deeper contextual targeting are immediately clear. For example, if you have a major crisis impacting parents, you can identify this subgroup and ensure your message consistently remains at the top of their streams. Messages that link to rich media, use hashtags, and feature a call to action (“RT PLEASE”) will usually garner the most attention. It is important to remember that Sponsored Tweets are just that – tweets you originally post to your account that you then “amplify” with advertising. If you are not active on Twitter and are not posting to your own account, you cannot participate or benefit from the pay-for-play arena.

How have you seen companies handle crises on Twitter? How should they be targeting you, the Twitter user?

author avatar
Joe Beccalori CEO
Joe Beccalori is a twenty-five-year digital marketing veteran and industry thought leader. After working for fifteen years in enterprise web programming, design, and marketing services he founded Interact Marketing in November 2007 and is currently the company CEO, visionary, and public speaker. He is also a contributing author on Forbes, Huffington Post, and Relevance.com. In December of 2017, Interact's parent company also acquired Slingshot SEO.
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