19/04/2013 09:27 BST | Updated 18/06/2013 06:12 BST

HMV and Burger King Feel the Sting of a New Kind of Communications Crisis

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For most businesses, managing communications has historically been mostly about dealing with what is published in the press, which is a relatively accountable and law abiding forum (I did say relatively). If you compare this to the new communications front line - social media - then the challenges for managing a communications crisis, as well as the scenarios that could constitute such a crisis, are suddenly scarily multiplied.

In recent months we have seen two examples of household name businesses that faced a communications crisis when the social media accounts were taken over. In February this year hackers got into the @BurgerKing Twitter account, replacing the BK logo with a McDonalds one and posting false updates about drug abuse within the company, unsanitary conditions and a take over of BK by its rival McDonalds. In total there were 450,000 tweets worldwide responding to the incident, which also made it into all the major newspapers before the account was temporarily suspended. Whilst many have argued that the burger giant received huge amounts of free coverage - and they also got more than 300,000 new followers - the question is at what price did this coverage come? Although the social media team responded well in a crisis, taking back the account and quickly explaining the situation, no business likes to have an exposed weakness on such a public forum.

At the tail end of last year a similar situation arose for retailer HMV, when the company's social media manager began tweeting to 60,000 followers from a meeting in which staff redundancies were being announced. By way of demonstrating the attention the incident received, there were 1,300 retweets of the first message in just half an hour. HMV took back control of the @hmvtweets account, explained the situation to its followers and cleverly continued to use the #hmvxfactorfiring hashtag that had already garnered so much attention. They did not make the mistake of trying to cover up what had happened but instead presented a genuine voice on the matter, which was much more engaging than a corporate brush under the carpet style approach.

Whilst there is a certain element of bad luck in these incidents, there are steps that businesses can take to protect themselves against this new kind of communications crisis:

  • Regular auditing of social media accounts - make sure that you have access to the passwords for these accounts and regularly ensure that they haven't been changed. Include third party apps and social media management tools and ensure that the Head of HR and several others have all the passwords. Try to choose strong passwords that have no relation to your business and won't be easy to guess.
  • Have a crisis plan - when a situation like this erupts it can have a 'rabbit in the headlights' type of effect, particularly if it has not happened before. Work through a communications crisis plan in advance so that the right people know what to do about, and how to spot, this kind of incident.
  • Restrict access - make sure you know who has access to your social media accounts and keep these groups small. Ensure employees are not using personal equipment to access the accounts so that you can take the equipment away if necessary.
  • Remember the power the communications team holds - it might be worth drawing up a separate contract for the comms team that emphasises their responsibilities and the consequences for breaching them. If you are making redundancies like HMV then be strategic about when you tell the communications team.
  • And finally, one of the key ways to defend your company against internal social media mismanagement is to have a social media policy. Use it to set out what is acceptable, what is not, and what will happen to those who break the rules.

Want more information on how to prevent a social media crisis? PR agency MD Communications has joined forces with Osborne Clarke and digital agency Organic Development to create a useful infograpic showing how to prevent a social media crisis and, if a crisis does happen, how to handle it.

And if you want advice on crisis communications do get in touch.