It’s hard to believe, but it’s been less than a decade since the first Tweet was sent. In that time, social media platforms have rapidly evolved to become a central way to gather, create and share information. The Pew Center’s Internet & American Life Project[1] estimates that 72 percent of U.S. adult online users are connected to at least one social media platform. These numbers further reveal that people now increasingly look to social media as a primary channel for news, information and updates. It certainly creates a lot of possibilities for companies, but also a number of challenges, when they start looking at issues and crisis management.

When a crisis occurs, the new norm is to turn to our mobile devices—never more than a few feet from us—to look for information, broadcast feelings, spread images and connect with one another around common experiences. News outlets have even taken to using social images and videos from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as both eyewitness sources in reporting and a mechanism to keep coverage fresh—even if it is covering what others are saying without proper verification.

Given the symbiotic relationship between social media and crises, it is not surprising that businesses and organizations are now factoring social media into not just their marketing plans, but also their crisis preparation and response plans. The food industry—no stranger to crisis—is no exception. Restaurants, suppliers, manufacturers, industry groups and other companies and organizations in the food industry are taking steps to use social media and supporting digital tools to help respond to issues and prepare for crisis management.

Such proactive planning is smart. With a few keystrokes on a smartphone, tablet or computer, every hour of every day, a frustrated customer or stakeholder can start a movement that may ignite a global campaign. Increasingly, people are turning to social media as the new customer service hotline; if satisfaction isn’t achieved, then they are quick to broadcast discontent. These complaints can turn into full-blown crises. Expressing concern about a poor customer service experience at a restaurant, spreading sensational images about a defective or contaminated product or even spreading a rumor about a potential food poisoning outbreak that may really only be the flu have all become commonplace tactics. Those single voices, Tweets or posts are empowered with more volume than ever before, and it takes just one person online to ignite brand turmoil.

Social Media and Food Safety
So just how prepared is the food industry in this age of the empowered online citizen? For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains a blog[2] and has a presence on Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and YouTube. The Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit dedicated to curbing the use of harmful food production technologies to enhance human health and the environment, has an equally robust social media footprint, with accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and YouTube. Many companies across the industry are also following suit, and recognize that maintaining a variety of social channels, blogs and mobile applications is a critical business tool for customer service, marketing and a variety of other functions.

Yet, a majority of these entities have not leveraged social media to the extent possible in crisis management efforts. For example, a recent Business Continuity Insight Survey[3] conducted by Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) revealed that 57 percent of respondents do not officially use social media as a crisis management resource.

Phil Samson, the expert behind the survey, suggested that there remains some uncertainty about adopting social media as companies weigh the possible risks and legal complications. Further, those organizations that have begun integrating social media into crisis management efforts have reported only modest improvements in organizational capabilities, which may be indicative of ineffective or inefficient use of social media.

Take FDA for example. As mentioned, the agency maintains several social media channels. However, by its own admission, FDA is looking for more opportunities to communicate via social media. In an FDA report published in July 2013,[4] the agency indicated its intent to devote more resources to social and mobile outreach so that information about the safety and efficacy of food and healthcare products reaches all subpopulations—or, in any case, increases the odds of reaching more people.

The report also states that one of the biggest challenges that FDA faces is that it “competes with many other sources of information for its stakeholders’ time and attention.” As a result, FDA recently announced plans to increase and improve upon its current use of social media.

Recognition of this new reality is slowly taking hold across the food industry as more companies embrace social media for both marketing and issues responses. But for companies to more readily (or, at the very least, less reluctantly) embrace social media as a crisis management tool, it is important to understand that many potential online issues can be avoided, or at least can be quickly addressed before they become a full-fledged crisis. All companies can learn from a list of a few simple tips.  

Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail
The following are guidelines the food industry should consider implementing to help with preparedness efforts around issues and crisis management efforts.

1) Monitoring is imperative
Establishing a robust monitoring process is fundamental to effective issues and crisis management. Regardless of the approach employed (e.g., making use of automated technology solutions like Radian6 versus hiring human analysts), online conversation monitoring needs to be actionable and provide intelligence that is appropriately leveraged across the company—not just a record of every brand mention made online.

An example of an organization doing it right is an initiative launched by the Chicago Department of Public Health, which capitalizes on information shared via Twitter to track foodborne illness. The resulting app—called Foodborne Chicago—searches Twitter for keywords that may be related to a foodborne illness. A team of the app’s developers identifies relevant Tweets and reaches out to the affected individuals to persuade them to submit a food poisoning report online. The complaint forms are connected to the city’s Open311 service, which makes the status of the complaint public, and individuals can make dining decisions accordingly.

To prepare for such activity and prevent escalation of issues, companies must listen to the online dialogue related to their company name, brands, key company players and advertising/marketing campaigns and have a general understanding of what’s happening throughout their industry (including competitors, regulation, scientific studies, etc.). Monitoring not only helps identify issues as they arise, but it can also present opportunities for correcting misinformation before a full-blown crisis erupts. Monitoring further contributes to identification of key online influencers and it may even serve as an indicator of issues that loom on the horizon.

Monitoring programs should include popular social media communities where key stakeholders are participating: blogs and message boards, specialty communities or websites like Wikipedia and reader-generated comments posted online in response to mainstream media articles and blog posts. Where appropriate, monitoring efforts should also take into account global reach and cover relevant keywords in multiple languages.

It is also important to establish processes for monitoring outside the confines of the regular workday (e.g., evenings, early morning, weekends and holidays). Just because a company isn’t open for business doesn’t mean that conversation related to it stops. With the food industry, folks are likely to go to restaurants, go grocery shopping and enjoy meals at home during nonbusiness hours, making it more likely that off-hours will be the time when issues arise. Finally, monitoring processes should include regular snapshots of how keywords are appearing in search engines like Google. Following how negative search terms appear in search engine results can serve as an important barometer of what your stakeholders might be finding when they search for terms related to your company or organization—or even the industry. If negative results start to appear in the top 10 search results, then it’s an indicator that there might be significant media coverage or social media conversation that requires further examination.

2) Transparency and access are the new standard
Transparency and access aren’t new terms or concepts, but with the explosion of social media, they have taken on new meaning. Technology has enabled people to have ready access to information, and they have now come to expect it. Stakeholders are beginning to want open access to relevant content and the ability to participate in dialogue that will help them satisfy their information needs. As it pertains to food, they want to know ingredients, nutritional value and even the supply chain journey that their food takes before they make a purchase decision. Additionally, when there is a problem, either with the product itself or as a result of consuming the product, consumers are looking for instantaneous response when they go to online customer service portals or a company’s Facebook page. Sometimes these expectations for immediacy can be unfair, but they are becoming our new reality.

Consumers aren’t just relying on companies to provide transparency and access. Entire communities of review sites and tools have flooded the Internet during the last few years, including Yelp, reviews on Google+ Local and others. Individuals also use their own Facebook pages, Twitter handles, Instagram accounts and blogs to post reviews and assertions, and pose questions that can influence decisions. These ratings or reviews can have a huge impact on buying decisions. In fact, a much-cited Harvard Business School study[5] indicated that a one-star rating increase for a restaurant listed on Yelp translated to a bump in revenue of 5 to 9 percent.

Unfortunately for consumers (and companies), the trustworthiness of these “unbiased” ratings services and individual reviews can be called into question. A recent study by Consumer Reports[6] sheds light on the inaccuracies and lack of trustworthiness of all the rating and review sites studied, stating, “Unsettling surprises came fast and frequently,” suggesting that some reviewers were paid or had hidden agendas.

Recognizing this, Yelp teamed up with public health officials to draw attention to health ratings as a means of “cleaning up” the restaurant industry so that Yelp reviews offer more than just personal commentary. Michael Luca, a Harvard Business School professor who studies consumer decision making, notes that the way we choose restaurants has fundamentally changed. Whereas restaurant-goers used to rely on publication of hygiene grades in restaurant windows, the digital version has manifested itself in the form of negative reviews on Yelp.

To further bolster these reviews, Yelp is supplementing user-generated content with information and data included in San Francisco’s restaurant inspection reports. The city has been publishing health-inspection scores for years on its own website, but the information has gone unnoticed even though it is publicly available and easily accessible. Neither diners nor restaurant-goers are going out of their way to look up the data. But when San Francisco published the inspection reports on Yelp, they immediately became more visible and their findings amplified. More than a dozen cities, including Austin, Texas, Philadelphia and Chicago, are expected to follow suit, demonstrating the power of social media and the importance placed on transparency in the realm of food safety.

Similarly, Just Label It,[7] a campaign backed by industry heavyweights that urges FDA to label genetically modified foods, has generated significant traction. With 91 percent of Americans demanding transparency in the labeling of genetically engineered foods, Just Label It has racked up support for an online petition via Facebook and Twitter. Gary Hirshberg, CEO of yogurt and dairy company Stonyfield Organic, once waited to hear from legislators on food policy issues, but now the reverse is true—because of pressure created by social media, legislators call him with regard to people organizing online around food concerns and safety. “I can tell you the White House is watching,” he said of the Just Label It petition.

3) Be proactive in engagement–with loyalists and detractors, alike
Silence is not golden. By saying nothing when customers are asking questions or looking for help online, you often leave an opening for others to step in and fill the silence with their own commentary—which may not be favorable to your brand or organization, and could contain misinformation. Moreover, silence is often seen as an admission of guilt. This point was recently illustrated by Chobani, a top-selling yogurt brand. At the end of August 2013, the Greek-style yogurt company received a flood of customer complaints that certain containers of yogurt exploded and mold was found inside. According to an analysis of social media done for Risk & Compliance Journal by ListenLogic,[8] there were at least 38 social media posts referencing mold in the company’s product between August 19 and September 1, 2013. On August 26, Chobani quietly communicated issuance of a voluntary withdrawal to stores to tell them to remove the afflicted products. It wasn’t until September 5, some 17 days after the issue surfaced on social media channels, that Chobani addressed the problem publicly in a coordinated and aggressive way.

Even then, the company’s announcement—a Facebook post reporting that the decision to remove yogurt from select stores was due to “isolated quality concerns”—was criticized for not doing enough. The voluntary withdrawal was seen as falling short of the more public voluntary recall (which involves issuance of a press release that is distributed by the company and FDA) and led to some criticism on social media channels. Chobani’s approach left some wondering what was going on, and keeping quiet for as long as it did might have suggested that the brand either was hiding something or didn’t have a handle on the situation. The takeaway is that stakeholders want answers and speed is of the essence, especially during an issue or crisis.

If you don’t have all of the answers right away, that is OK. A simple but immediate response stating that the issue or question is being reviewed and more information will follow can suffice. This can buy some time, but there needs to be a response shortly thereafter. This can come in the form of Facebook comments, Tweets directing people to a phone number or e-mail address to connect with a customer service specialist, or a blog post/web page that is created to serve as a central repository for updates. Once a decision is made and more information is available, then it is important to push those updates to as many people as appropriate and in a measured way. For example, during a full-blown crisis, it is important to use as many channels as possible to get messages to target audiences, but if the issue were relatively contained, then direct responses to impacted audiences are probably more prudent than a wall post on Facebook broadcasting to potentially millions of fans. Regardless, it’s important to engage with your audiences where they are talking about this issue—whether they’re seeding social media platforms with positive feedback or inciting negative commentary. The former presents an opportunity to engage advocates through online conversations, whereas the latter allows an organization to correct misinformation, share its own perspective or work on providing help and resolution for those with concerns or questions.

4) Think holistically—a race for “Google juice”
Not only do posts, images, videos and other materials live on forever in Google and other search engines, but search engines are also now the new direct interface with company stakeholders. The battle for hearts and minds (and stomachs) effectively starts with a search. In fact, more than 80 percent of online sessions begin with a search engine, as users don’t usually type a company’s URL address into a browser. In essence, search engines have become the de facto bearer of search results deemed relevant to a company or brand. Google, Bing and their counterparts aren’t just search engines; they’re “reputation engines.”

While Google is beginning to incorporate more in the way of real-time search results, existing content deemed significant and relevant by Google (based on keywords, inbound links and interactions, among many other factors) is likely to show up atop search results. This persists even in the event of a crisis, a technicality of the inner workings of search engine optimization that companies tend to overlook.

Nonetheless, it is a reality that companies should use to their advantage by ensuring that relevant keyword searches generate content that represents the company as it wishes to be portrayed. Customers should take note of what search results say about the company—do they lead Internet users to media articles that speak of the company favorably? Do they prominently display negative posts or reviews and criticism? More important, are company websites listed first or do competitors and critics own this real estate?

By the time a crisis breaks or is manufactured, it may be too late to create content to influence search results (a process often referred as “Google juice”) as a means of pushing certain content to the top of search results. To account for this, many companies have turned to paid keyword search campaigns to help promote key messages. These appear at the top of search results in sponsored sections. To be clear, paid campaigns are usually conducted in conjunction with publishing carefully crafted content that can be properly indexed and permanently displayed among search results for a company.

5) Develop internal processes and put a system in place
It’s impossible to navigate every corner of the digital world. Relax. No one goes everywhere at once. Hopefully, “crisis” won’t always be the situation in which you find yourself. If and when it is, it is important to have internal processes and protocols in place that allow for successful crisis management.

As with any traditional crisis communications program—or any major business decision—companies that have been most successful in mitigating negative issues or results are those that have well-developed contingency plans. The same is true for online preparedness. Many of the social media gaffes or online issues that companies have experienced in the past can be avoided or easily addressed by developing a system for navigating the crisis waters.

A Must-Do List
Your organization’s system for getting through a crisis successfully must include the following steps:

• Develop a company-specific definition of an “online crisis,” as well as scenarios in which a noncrisis could be escalated to the level of a crisis

• Build an online rapid-response team with clearly delineated roles and responsibilities

• Develop online guidelines and properly train team members and employees using those guidelines

• Take proactive online brand protection efforts (e.g., establish a monitoring program, secure URLs and social media user names, etc.)

• Prepare possible responses and materials for existing liabilities and potential worst-case scenarios

• Learn from your experiences (or the experiences of others) and build training programs that help you continue to refine the entire process so it meets best practices

Practice and test your processes before you need them to look for gaps and inefficiencies and to build muscle memory in your response—that way, a crisis is not the first time you are trying out your system and approach.  

Dan Webber is a senior vice president at Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm. He leads the digital crisis and corporate reputation management group out of the firm’s Washington, DC, office.