Social media anxiety: 140 characters into, or out of, a crisis

August 1, 2013

A Latin proverb advises, “Never give a child a sword.” I’ve always taken it to mean: Don’t give a tool or a weapon to someone who doesn’t know how to handle it safely.

For management, Twitter is the sword that someone has handed to their employees or children. And often, the communications staff is the frantic parent repairing the damage that the child has done.

But like a good sword, Twitter is also a tool that can cut through the clutter and create a clear path between you and your audience. Twitter can be the cause of — and part of the solution to — your crisis.

Reduce risk

The Boston Marathon bombing this past April revealed many of the positives and negatives of the Twitterverse during a crisis.

As expected, false information and speculation sped through tweets from the public and the media. On the other hand, official feeds were able to disseminate important information to the public, as well as address rumors (especially after CNN reported — and Fox News falsely confirmed — that a suspect had been arrested).

Slate’s Jeremy Stahl published an article this past April 15 on how journalists and spokespeople should use Twitter in a crisis. While most of the article is geared toward the media, spokespeople and PR executives can use many of these tips.

My favorite piece of advice in the story is this: “First, media outlets need to turn off their automated Twitter feeds to ensure that frivolous and/or off-topic items don’t get sent out by mistake. You don’t want to be tweeting about the tax benefits of the state of Texas while limbs are being amputated in Boston if you’re @GovPerry, or — ahem — the latest ‘Dear Prudence’ column if you’re @Slate.”

This isn’t something that I had considered in my consulting before, but now, it will be one of the first steps that I recommend.

Communicate carefully

In the June issue of Tactics, Patricia Swann wrote a thorough and informative analysis of how the Boston Police Department (BPD) used Twitter during the search for the bombing suspects.

Even though there wasn’t an official blog policy at the time of the bombing, she notes that one reason for the BPD’s communications success was because “BPD Commissioner Edward Davis asked the public information office to handle social media messaging and to use it more often to directly communicate with the public.”

This is critical. We must think of Twitter just like every other form of external communication. Someone who knows messaging and public relations should handle it so accidents will not happen.

One big advantage to having a communications professional in charge of Twitter is that it allows for a faster and better response when a crisis occurs.

Someone who has been trained to communicate effectively does not need to have every message double-checked. So he or she can reply immediately to a direct message (DM) or proactively send out a statement without needing to get it approved by management. I’m not advocating ignoring the C-suite, but being able to craft a quick, effective, helpful message increases the chances of success.

I suspect that many companies and organizations have handed their tweets over to someone who is “good with computers,” figuring that knowing how to actually enter the 140 characters into the platform is more important than making sure that they are the right 140 characters.

Case in point, after President Obama mentioned his grandmother in a 2012 debate, KitchenAid found itself in a crisis. The official KitchenAid Twitter feed posted a message reading, “Obamas gma even knew it was going 2 b bad! ‘She died 3 days b4 he became president’.”

Apparently, the person in charge of KitchenAid’s Twitter account meant to post this tweet on his personal account, but accidentally used the company’s account instead. So, one of the nation’s most prominent companies sent out a message making fun of the president’s deceased grandmother.

However, KitchenAid also showed how to properly use Twitter following a crisis. Just after midnight that night, Cynthia Soledad, senior director of KitchenAid, sent a series of apologetic Tweets:

“I would like to personally apologize to President @BarackObama, his family and everyone on Twitter for the offensive tweet sent earlier."

“It was carelessly sent in error by a member of our Twitter team who, needless to say, won’t be tweeting for us anymore."

“That said, I take full responsibility for my team. Thank you for hearing me out.”

Soledad also directly reached out to a number of trade and general reporters. One tweet said, “@adweek My name is Cynthia Soledad, and I’m the head of KitchenAid. I’d like to talk on record about what happened. Please DM me. Thanks.”

Soledad used the immediacy and directness of Twitter to explain, appropriately apologize and communicate with the public and the media. This is a textbook example of how Twitter can get you into, and out of, trouble.

Set boundaries

I was recently involved in a LinkedIn discussion on whether you can “forbid” employees from using social media during a crisis.

My answer was: “You can’t ‘forbid’ it, but you can point out how important it is to have the company speak with one voice and that accurate information is dispensed at all times. I told my client to request [that employees don’t put messages/pics of the crisis on social media], but if they have already done so, don’t be onerous in the response.”

When it comes to crisis communication, Twitter is  not that special. It has many of the same challenges and advantages of communication forms that have been around for centuries.

But, it is much faster, and easy to forward and respond to, so even more care must be taken with it than with every other form.


Ken Scudder

Ken Scudder has provided media training, presentation training, crisis communications training and consulting, as well as writing and editing, to business leaders, celebrities and politicians for more than 20 years. Contact him at,, or follow @kenscudder on Twitter.


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