By: Sarah Cornelisse*
What would you consider as a crisis for your business? Mislabeled product? A product recall? An employee injury? Death of an employee or customer? A claim regarding health or nutrition lacking scientific backing? A crisis can take many forms. When it comes to crisis management, social media has altered the context and tactics used when responding to and managing a crisis, but the core principles remain the same.
Dictionary.com defines a crisis as “a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, especially for better or for worse, is determined.” It’s important to note that the definition does not identify the type of events; it simply that events are occurring and that there is a point that defines the course of future events. And while it may be clear that some events are crises, others may not so clearly fit the category.
Types of crises in the agriculture and food industries can include contamination, recalls, and negative publicity. Crises may occur with more frequency than you might expect. For example, there were more than 2,400 seafood recalls registered by the United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) across 20 years (October 2002 through March 2022) (Blickem et al., 2023).
This averages to 120 per year – for seafood alone. When you consider the other types of crises that may have occurred within the seafood industry during those 20 years and add the number of crises in all other ag and food industries, the magnitude is staggering.
By now, most of us are familiar with social media. Platforms such as Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), Reddit, TikTok, and YouTube are all examples.
Social media is a communication channel, but with the notable differentiating feature of 2-way communication when compared with traditional media such as newspapers, radio or television. Due to the nature of communication on social media as well as the much shorter lifecycle of news and information, users have different expectations regarding openness and transparency for those with whom they interact, whether individuals or businesses.
Social media has progressed into a regularly used source for news among its users. In 2022, 50% of U.S. adults reported sometimes or often getting their news from social media (Liedke and Matsa, 2022). This highlights the potential importance and value of social media for crisis management.
When it comes to crisis management, social media has altered the context and tactics used when responding to and managing a crisis, but the core principles remain the same.
✓ Identify a team. Know who needs to, or should be, involved. While some team members may be apparent (e.g. spokesperson, business owner/CEO, etc.), other team members may be less apparent and include individuals with responsibilities in areas such as product distribution or finance.
✓ Have a plan. Don’t wait until a crisis occurs to figure out how to address it. Assign roles to team members and make sure each understands their responsibilities.
✓ Practice your response. Simulating a range of crisis types can provide team’s valuable experience, better preparing them for responding to a true crisis. Crisis drills provide a non-stressful environment for preparation and identifying aspects of the plan that need strengthening.
When considering the role of social media in crisis management, there are benefits including:
✓ Real-time communication and information dissemination. Social media allows businesses the ability to communicate with the public and stakeholders in realtime; no need to wait for the next publication of a newspaper or news telecast.
✓ Monitoring and tracking emerging issues. The crisis management team can use social media to monitor online conversations and media coverage of the situation. This can aid in identifying important aspects that need to be addressed and help provide a sense of public and stakeholder sentiment.
✓ Engaging with stakeholders and the public. The two-way mode of communication allows businesses to directly engage with stakeholders on the social media platform(s), answering questions, addressing concerns, or providing specific information.
✓ Convey transparency and build trust. Appropriate use of social media and engagement through the platform can convey to stakeholders and the public that a business is being transparent in their efforts to share information and address the crisis, thus building and/or reinforcing trust between the public and the business.
An analysis of existing research on crisis communication determined that “using social media significantly lessened consumers’ perceived crisis responsibility” (Xu, 2020). That is, consumers’ views of the business’s responsibility for the crisis went down when businesses used social media.
A publication from Deloitte (Overlander, 2023) outlines five principles for thinking about social media in a crisis:
1.Social media isn’t always the right way to communicate in a crisis. Crisis communications should be tailored to the specific incident and sometimes that may rule social media out as an appropriate tool.
2.Great social media engagement in ‘peace time’ can be your downfall in a crisis. Social media is often left to marketers, but in the midst of a crisis, the marketing individual or team may not be the appropriate lead for social media communications.
Crisis planning should include a discussion about when social media responsibilities should be moved to someone in a different role. Consider also whether a process for approving social media crisis communications should be implemented.
3.Inform, don’t engage. During and following a crisis, businesses will want to share relevant information with their audience and social media is a highly effective avenue. However, experienced social media users are also aware that the platforms don’t often lend themselves to nuanced debate. Details can easily be overlooked or left out. In a crisis, therefore, it is important to discern when a conversation should be taken offline.
4.Listen hard; ignore much. What does this mean? As outlined previously, social media is an excellent tool for monitoring online conversations, allowing businesses to assess sentiment and determine if there are issues that need to be addressed.
However, there is also a lot of ‘noise’ on social media, requiring the individual or team monitoring these conversations to be able to effectively sift through what is important and what is not.
5.Protect your CEO. Get them on social media. This may seem counter intuitive given the principle of not engaging. In a crisis, however, particularly serious crises, the media will attempt to frame the situation and the business may fall victim to inaccurate reporting. Personal social media use during this time by business leader(s) may be a way to counteract any inaccuracies while also displaying the human side of the business.
A vital point when considering the use of social media in crisis management is that someone on the team must be comfortable and experienced with the social media platform(s) used. A crisis is not the time to try to learn a new platform, as differences exist between platforms when it comes to user demographics, style of use, and expectations.
The role of social media in crisis management continues to evolve as platforms and the public’s use of social media evolve. Businesses should regularly assess their planned use of social media as part of their crisis response plan. That said, food industry businesses should embrace social media as a vital tool for mitigating and managing crises.
*Sarah Cornelisse is a Senior Extension Associate of agricultural entrepreneurship and business management at Penn State University in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology and Education.
Sarah has expertise in direct marketing, value-added dairy entrepreneurship and marketing, the use of digital and social media for agricultural farm and food business marketing, and business and marketing planning and decision making.
Originally from New York State, she has a B.A in mathematics from the State University of New York at Geneseo, and M.S. degrees in Agricultural Economics and Animal Science, both from Penn State University.
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Editor’s note: references cited by the author within the text are available under previous request to our editorial team.