Leadership in a crisis: how to fight distraction amid the blur of social media

Crisis Management Team looking distracted

In our larger crisis simulation exercises, we generally offer the leadership team, tasked with overseeing their organisation’s crisis response, a dashboard view of what’s going on in social media.

Most teams gladly accept: after all, it’s a great opportunity to monitor what’s happening so they can respond quickly, and get a sense of how an issue plays out across social media – compared with the conventional media and stakeholder channels they might be more familiar with. We’ll typically hear them later on, chuckling at the memes that internet comedians have posted, or drawing sharp breaths at spoof accounts or celebrity complaints which have appeared in their timeline. These teams will typically be somewhat dazed in the debrief: “It all moves so fast!” they tell us. “We struggled to keep up with it all, and couldn’t get enough of a handle on the situation to be able to get our response together.”

Smart teams look at us quizzically, and use the dashboard we give them strictly for situational awareness: early warning of the incident and the crucial who-what-where-when insights they need to shape a sensible handling strategy. They studiously ignore the memes and noise. They fare much better: but in the debrief, it’s clear that the CEO’s constant glances at the screen caused frustration to her colleagues trying to prioritise a stakeholder list or draft key messages.

The best teams shoo us away. They know that a 50″ plasma screen in the corner of the room, refreshing every few seconds with colourful influencers’ tweets and shocking images will rob them of the thing they most need in a crisis: focus. It’s not that they don’t take social media seriously, or want to know what the outside world is saying. But they have clear roles and process to follow during an incident, with team members dedicated to monitoring, prioritising and escalating the insights that are important.

Social media: “the blended and the blurred”

I was with a team in France recently, reflecting thoughtfully on their exercise when a colleague cleverly articulated the challenged posed by social media in a crisis as “le flux et le flou” which loosely translates as “the blended and the blurred”.

It’s a confusing and unfamiliar melting pot which blends customers with regulators, politicians with campaigners, noisy comedians with straight-up criminals. They respond to and amplify each other, at speed and in ways that were unimaginable in conventional media.

But it gives at best a blurry picture in real-time: increasingly, it’s hard to tell the genuine from the fake, or predict who will see what in their algorithmic timelines. It’s difficult to analyse in the heat of the moment which elements have potential reputational impact, and which are just the drama of an embarrassing episode played out online. Taking time to make the right judgements takes calm and nerve, supported by colleagues with intuitive news sense and the ability to take in a situation across social media quickly but maturely.

Watching the blurry blend of fact and fiction, shock and comedy is a compulsion for leaders glued to their smartphones – just as it is for many of us. But following the soap opera of a crisis on social media blow-by-blow saps leaders’ time and focus and prevents them stepping back to consider the bigger picture.

So how do you stop leaders from becoming distracted?

Preserving the ability for leaders to properly lead the crisis response is what differentiates effective teams from their overwhelmed colleagues. Here’s five things they do:

  1. Establish a clear monitoring function on the team: someone with social media nous whose task is to be the ‘antennae’ of the team, spotting issues early, recording and classifying comments, monitoring trends or analytics and sharing short reports regularly with their colleagues.
  2. Analyse themes, prioritise influencers, and escalate only when necessary: a function which reviews reports of what’s happening in social media, prioritises according to the crisis response strategy defined, and can filter intelligently, so key information reaches crisis leaders and they have confidence that they’ll see what’s important without trawling for themselves.
  3. Seek input from crisis leaders on priorities and parameters, not drafting advice: often, we see bottlenecks develop within team processes, where responses get delayed while they’re being signed off by senior people who themselves are distracted, scanning ever-changing social media feeds and inboxes. Crisis Teams work best when leaders focus on analysing the situation, agree parameters and priorities, and share these with the team to use when responding to the media, to stakeholders or customers. Set a clear strategy and trust specialist colleagues to execute on it.
  4. Make effective use of empathetic leaders: while it’s hard to tweet and think under pressure, that’s not to say a leader’s own social media channels shouldn’t be part of the response strategy. A message from a leader that demonstrates concern and empathy is hugely valuable – but in the pressure of a crisis, they need a supportive team around them to understand the context and handle the response they’ll inevitably get.
  5. Manage upwards, firmly but professionally: it’s instinctive human curiosity to want to see for oneself what’s happening, especially on a channel as lively as Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. But when middle managers see leaders glued to their iPhones and hampering the team’s response, they need to gently but firmly get them back on track, using a regular meeting and reporting pattern, or process templates to help everyone focus.

These days, we rarely have to persuade clients we work with that understanding what’s happening in social media is important. But we’re all still figuring out how to assimilate social media into crisis handling  – and indeed our own lives – without feeling overwhelmed by it.

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