How to best leverage your social team during a brand crisis

Have the recent Pepsi and United coverage ignited reflections on your own past communication crises? If you've worked in social media for long, you've likely had to weather a few storms. Perhaps you were even on the front lines of your company’s channels.

From disgruntled customers to wronged employees, product recalls and media creating more problems than solutions, crises affect communicators across the industry. And although every crisis is quite different, one thing is sure: your internal processes can be just as important to successful issue resolutions as the actual messaging you put out across your channels.

Here are three ways to better educate and integrate with your social team, when your organization is in the midst of a crisis:

1. Make sure everyone hears everything at the same time (or close to it).

All too frequently, the social media team is looped in midway through a crisis or as an aside. If the issue updates are so confidential or sensitive that you can only have a few people in the room with your execs and legal team, make it your Internal PIO or communicator, External PIO or communicator, and your Social Media lead.

2. Set a regular cadence for real-time social media reporting up the ladder.

Your social team is on the front lines of this battle, and as kindling-type comments burst into flames, they'll see the crisis brewing and building in real-time. If you're already in the midst of the crisis, your social team will have their fingers on the pulse of its tone and lifespan.

In a crisis, urgency and authenticity on social media are imperative.

Do you have to change course on your communication strategy because of a few negative social comments? No, but pay attention if the quantity or intensity of those comments start to pick up. Social crises are like a leaky dam - just a few water drops at first, but those drops can very quickly become a flood.

3. Social Media Managers: As comments come in, track for trends, themes, and particularly unique commentary.

You don't have to screen grab and share every negative tweet with your boss, but if you start to feel momentum building in the conversation, flag it. We can guarantee your colleagues would rather live through a few false alarms, than be caught off guard in a serious brand crisis.

Social crises are like a leaky dam - just a few water drops at first, but those drops can very quickly become a flood.

Moreover, use these trends and themes to add to your "living, breathing" FAQ document. You'll likely be working off of leadership- and/or legally-approved corporate messaging. You can add a social media section to that doc, with common questions or issues you're seeing, and/or you can share feedback directly with your team, who may need to adjust their verbiage or positioning in subsequent messages.

So, what?

Communicating in a crisis can be challenging. We don’t often feel like we’ve "won," even if our side is the righteous one. When emotions are running hot and there's a lot at stake, every tweet counts. In a crisis, urgency and authenticity on social media are imperative.

Unfortunately, we're all going to make mistakes. And the next Pepsi or United moment is right around the corner for some unsuspecting brand - perhaps even our own.

As communicators and leaders, take these news stories as an incentive to better integrate and educate your team. When we know better, we can try to do better.

Social Media for Clinical Trial Recruitment

We know we we should be doing it, right?

Instead of spending most of your budget on print or physical ads, we could be doing strategic, hyper-targeted, hyper-relevant recruiting across our digital channels.

We can use different tools available across social channels to reach specific populations needed for recruitment. This can be done by using Facebook ads, keyword searches by zip code, or upload our community outreach e-mail distribution list to re-target the people we need. Then, we can test things like Instagram ads to gauge engagement interest over on-site conversion.

But you knew all of that. So, what's stopping us?


For many scientists and health care administrators, the term "social media" brings with it horror stories of lawsuits, HIPAA violations and information privacy breaches. The clinical trial space is especially susceptible to this.

-What if you face ramifications from posting an ad and people start asking medical advice?     
-What if fans or followers start over-sharing details of their disease that puts their privacy at risk?
-What do you do if someone interprets the use of your recruitment language and expect to be “cured?”

These are real, legitimate concerns. And you'll need to talk through them at-length with your own IRB council, research and digital leadership. We must be prepared to mitigate risk and de-escalate sensitive recruitment issues in real-time, just as we do in the rest our social media work now. 

2. Platform Limitations

If we could ask the social media gods one thing, it would be this: Stop making it so dang hard for us to help the people who really need it.

In the past, Facebook has rejected some of our team's ads, if they've use the word "suffer" or show a physiological image, calling it "pornographic." What?

Twitter stops our clinical trial promoted tweets in their tracks, regulating and blocking them by their "pharma policy.”

The platforms, themselves, are a barrier to our progress.

But we have faith, naive as it may be, that with each new feature or algorithm update, Mark Zuckerberg will come to understand the bigger risks of not accommodating this important work.

3. Process and Resourcing

We need the IRB's OK for any promotional copy going out around our research, which includes Facebook ads and tweets. And you've got a whole lot of researchers, who need to be doing world-changing science.

Do you expect those scientists to also know how to write 90 characters of engaging social copy, with a compelling call-to-action and relevant hashtag - before they put their project through for IRB approval?

Absolutely not. That's your social team's job. But they have customer service, crisis and community management, and robust content development to take care of. So, where does that leave us?

(Hint: You'll probably want to consider developing some kind of "social media toolkit" for your research teams. University of Arizona has a nice one.)


We're mired in the muck of poor process

We've talked "breaking down internal fiefdoms" before, but this really is the largest impediment to our making the most of digital clinical trial recruitment.

We're going to have to move people around, add more to the plates of folks who are already quite busy (i.e. your social squad, your research administration, your legal team), before we get a streamlined process in place.

It's going to be a hard-sell internally. It's going to be more work before it becomes less. It's going to require hiring more people.

But we promise you, in the long run, it will save your institution big dollars.

Most importantly, it will change the future of healthcare.

Find important FDA guidelines for recruitment here and here.

*This post originally published on LinkedIn.

4 must-haves in a community manager hire

It's time to invest in social media. The online conversation is building and your business needs a dedicated in-house resource, tasked with managing and building your online reputation. 

Nearly all of today's grads and junior-level communicators will claim "social media expertise" on their resumes, so how do you know what to look for in your new hire?

How can you tell the difference between a strategic social marketer and a self-proclaimed social pro?

1. They're a great writer.

A University of Oregon professor insisted to her guest lecturer, Jess Columbo:

"Please," she said, "remind them that good writing matters - even in your world."

Real social media strategists know that 90 characters doesn't mean creative, engaging, grammatically correct content goes out the window. On the contrary! Your ideal hire will have love and respect for the written word and a portfolio of blog posts, web copy and/or social editorial content to prove it.

2. They do free work.

Look for a hire, who has developed and applied their strategic social skills as a volunteer in their community. This can be especially important for younger pros, who should be building their skill-set by offering social marketing help to non-profits or community organizations they're passionate about. Plus, their volunteer experience will likely tell you a lot about their character.

3. Their content creation game is on point.

Your community manager should be the definition of a T-shaped hire: An employee with a broad range of skills, who has depth of expertise in one particular area. In addition to social media proficiency, they might also be skilled with Photoshop or InDesign. Maybe they're adept with video editing tools.

These added creative skills will go a long way to supplement your lean in-house resources.

4. They're friendly with Google Analytics.

It is important that everyone on your web team to have the ability to jump in to the back-end of your web properties, pull socially-relevant data, and craft coherent “stories” for stakeholders from those analytics.

Your new hire can't be scared of data: It's not math. It's archaeology. And they should love to dig for stories, unearthing the insights hidden beneath those referral and conversion metrics that drive real business growth.


Are you ready to hire an in-house superstar? Need help with recruitment? We can help.

Servant Marketing: A Love Story

"Can we build a community that will help build the product & company with us?"

There it was. Joanna Lord, former Porch executive and all-around brilliant marketer, had articulated something I'd been longing for ever since my social marketing career first began ten years ago. 

Empathic or servant marketing isn't a new notion, nor was Joanna using it with regard to my industry. She was talking "unicorns," those high-growth tech start-ups that come around only once in a lifetime, eg. Facebook. 

Nevertheless, it was a validating moment for me, as an ever-student of the social space.

Despite smart leaders like Joanna, an array of statistics to the contrary, and actual feedback from real, human consumers, we continue to define and operate our online communities from a place of transaction rather than empathy.

Evolution of Community

It's true, our understanding of community building has evolved dramatically since I first pitched "this thing called Facebook" to an adventurous consumer client in the Winter of 2007.

It was the wild west of MySpace-looking company Facebook pages, interactive apps and way too many e-cards.

Rise of the Mommy Blogger

Before another year had passed, crafty midwest matriarchs were emailing me their "media kits" with inflated estimated reach numbers and demands for free product. I understood, inherently, the value of influence (I worshipped Oprah, like everyone else), but we were scrambling to quantify the return on investment for intrigued, albeit skeptical clients.

Fan rush of 2011

Brands started scrambling. We didn't know why we needed fans, but our competitors had more, so we started hiring web developers to create "Like gates." We would offer coupons, samples and other shlocky deals in exchange for new fans. There was this strange sense of urgency around social growth. Vanity metrics reigned supreme, and Facebook icons were popping up everywhere, from the bottom of e-blasts to product packaging.

Let us serve

The last few years give me hope. We see more social good campaigns. We see more brands listening, if not only because customers are calling them on the carpet, it (tweet an aggressive complaint to Alaska Air and see what happens). There is less room left for brands, who make demands of their communities vs. asks, ones who disrespect the social-emotional needs of their end users.

And although there are many moments, wherein fans are inflamed, incorrect, or simply incorrigible trolls, this greater industry shift is the right one.

Personal ethics aside, servant marketing is your company's most sustainable strategy. It requires patience and some higher up-front costs, but it also encourages deeper brand loyalty, advocacy and employee engagement. I will be forever grateful for the increasingly empowered consumer; they make me a better marketer. 

So, here's to 2016 and the continued evolution of community. Let us serve. Let us build this place together. 


Jess Columbo

Principal, Med|Ed Digital