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Monte Lutz, SVP digital, EdelmanAre PR firms better at developing great social media strategies than digital or traditional creative agencies? Ask a brand with a social media “crisis” on its hands – and the answer may be yes.

At global PR agency Edelman, there’s a focus on evolving “social crisis management” into a unique expertise as well as a thought process infusing clients’ overall strategies. Monte Lutz, the firm’s SVP of digital, chatted with us about how and why that’s happening. 

Weber Shandwick recently launched a social media crisis simulator. How is social media changing the way Edelman preps its clients for crisis?

We’ve been doing social media-specific drills for the past year and a half. That includes everything from getting all the key members of a clients’ team into a war room, to remotely simulating breaking news with Blackberry. 

Ultimately, the drill – or even a product like Weber Shandwick’s – is just a means to the end of getting clients to ask the really important questions: Are we prepared? And what can we do to be able to get us to where we need to go?

Are you using unique tech platforms in your drills? 

There are some clients that need to see what a crisis will look like; so we’ll create the tweets, develop a mock Web site or a Facebook page to make it real. Other clients just want a roundtable conversation.  The main goal is to recreate the sensation of being in a crisis as much as possible. We use technology to help do that, but not one specific product or platform.

Can a company ever really be prepared for bearing the brunt of thousands of negative tweets or Facebook updates in real time? 

Even the best-prepared clients learn new things about their communications strategies in the midst of a crisis. But, I will say it only takes about 20 minutes for a crisis simulation to start to feel real. You’re amped, they’re amped – and after that, you forget it’s just a drill.

Then come the disagreements about who to communicate with first and how fast. Like, is the NYT more important than HuffPo? What about someone with a million Twitter followers? Do we address them before our Facebook fans? How bad is this? When do we involve legal?

How do you make sure that clients are answering the right questions and not just going around in circles during a drill?

We try to focus on three key elements: cadence, communication and channels.

Cadence is about the pace. The pace of communication during a crisis can be demanding, but speed alone can lead to poor execution. So in a drill, we’re trying to get clients to understand that they need to balance being fast with being smart. There’s a way to put a “pause” on the social stream. You can tell people: “We see this, give us x amount of time to think about it and address it, and we’ll be back.” But then they have to deliver on that promise. 

Communication is about knowing who needs to be looped in. When do you get legal involved? Does someone need to approve every tweet from the minute a crisis starts? What about other employees; how are they reacting to this through their personal channels? Will they find out from friends on Facebook before you even get to send an internal memo?

Channels are the actual platforms they’re communicating on. Of course they differ by client, and they change so rapidly – that it’s tough to simulate. But the goal is to figure out which ones will actually drive additional conversation and which may not be worth spending much time on.

Do you think social crisis management is a new expertise in terms of PR?

I think so. Previously, most crisis drills would only include someone from digital or social if a client needed or asked for it. Then, digital became part of every drill. Now, we actually have social crisis teams. It mirrors the way that social has become an integral part of most companies’ marketing and communications strategy – but there’s still a need for a specialist in house.

For example, most companies know they need a “dark page” – or content that they can post right to the corp Web site in the event of a crisis. But what about “dark tabs” on Facebook? Or pre-approved tweets that can be tailored to a specific situation? Thinking about that content, and being able to effectively explain the need for it to clients involves a new way of thinking.

So much of social media content is about building conversations and relationships. Does that make social strategy – for crisis or otherwise – firmly in the realm of PR firms?

Social media engagement isn’t just about telling stories, it’s about creating ongoing conversations – as you said. Creating conversations is what we do.

The way people talk to each other about companies – in crisis or otherwise – has changed. A baby food recall may have resulted in calls to a 1-800 number before. Now, they’re going to go to Facebook, Google or Bing, and the search engine becomes a reputation engine. Whatever they find on that first page will influence how they’ll think about that brand or crisis moving forward.

Now, a company can create an ad campaign that will help change those perceptions, but that’s one-way. If people are having conversations about your brand, how can you be part of them? How can you answer their questions? That’s what we do in PR.

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