Ten years ago, if you told Burger King that one of its biggest crisis communications challenges would be rumors of a sale to McDonalds arising on a social media site called Twitter, they would say: Twitter who?

While Burger King has long been ahead of the game when it comes to viral marketing, their 2004 executives would be scratching their heads. Such is the way social media has changed the way today’s crises behave. They are often generated with little more than a keyboard— in the form of an offensive post by a low-level employee, hijacked accounts, online boycotts, and unsubstantiated rumors. Not long ago, most of these threats didn’t exist, or at least didn’t have the potential to cause immediate and potentially catastrophic effects for your business.

With social media, audience interaction and the speed of media reporting (and with that, lapses in accuracy), can shape the narrative in profound ways. Today’s brands need to be on their toes 24/7.

So how are current crisis managers responding to these changes? In short… not so well.

In a recent survey 79 percent of companies believe they will face a crisis, and most believe that a crisis will happen in the online space.

And yet, nearly half lack a basic plan for online reputation monitoring; most don’t have the tools to know if their reputations are under attack; half have no idea who their key online influencers are within their industry; and one fourth have no digital crisis communications plan to respond to attacks. All this, despite the majority believing a crisis is all but inevitable in the near future.

Social media has made it essential for companies to have a comprehensive and easily deployable plan in place at all times. Here’s how to accomplish that in a few simple steps:

Take a brand audit. Appoint a brand protection team and review all of the company’s policies and procedures – looking for, and fixing, any areas of vulnerability, such as a weak employee social media policy. A brand audit does two important things: it makes sure your house is in order, and it starts the conversation about protecting the brand in any and all circumstances.

Develop a plan. A crisis often strikes without warning – so develop a plan ahead of it. Appoint a crisis communications team who will own your company’s response. Develop some boilerplate key messages to have at the ready, and hold mock Q&As around potential scenarios. Identify your best (media-trained!) spokespersons to take charge, and develop a communications chain. Develop a leadership accountability model and a crisis code of ethics.

And importantly… develop your social media readiness! You can’t simply wait for a crises to start developing your understanding of social tools—so do it now.

Your most important task here is to identify who owns social communications during a crisis. Turf wars between public relations, marketing and corporate communications departments can be paralyzing, and you won’t have time for that. Decide who owns your social channels beforehand, and make sure this team has a thorough understanding of social media and its power to influence the crisis narrative.
You should also develop a social media policy for employees. Differentiate between personal and professional activities, and establish clear guidelines and outline consequences. Provide your employees with training opportunities; a well-connected workforce can be a great resource for correcting misinformation.

Finally, prepare your social media team. They should have at their fingertips a number of tools to help navigate the crisis, including the following:

• A vendor for social listening that can be immediately activated
• Active accounts on multiple channels: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.
• Contact lists for your key industry influencers: trade pubs, bloggers, etc.
• A contactable webmaster who can help them through any technical difficulties
• A social media lead

With these tactics in place, your company can help prevent major crises before they happen and will be able to swiftly respond when they do.