It’s Saturday morning and you receive a call from a harassed colleague. There’s a breaking news story that is giving your press office some head aches, and an urgent need to clarify information before the rumour mill gets out of hand.

Trouble is, you weren’t aware of any this when you left the office on Friday so you’re not really prepared. But there are mounting concerns among the public. You turn on the radio and this topic is leading the news bulletin. You can see lots of references on Twitter.

People are panicking (not just your colleagues), speculating, taking unneccesary action. Unscrupulous businesses are already blogging and tweeting in order to turn a profit on the panic through compensation claims.

Three people jumping in the air holding signs that say panic and don't panic

All you have is:

  • a cleared statement
  • your organisation’s website
  • some social media channels
  • and an opportunity to reassure your colleagues that ‘you’ll take care of the web’

You haven’t had to build relationships with relevant communities in the past, and there isn’t a strategy in place like there is for major incidents. The kind of occurrence you might have anticipated already.

Check you have the right information and that it is clear. Get back to the basics of writing: tell the story in the first line, then use the rest of the space to gradually expand on detail. Offer up links to background information: press releases or supporting content. Don’t underestimate people’s insatiable appetite for information.

Make sure you and your colleagues agree on one link to promote. It’s easier to publish to one place and promote one link, and there is less risk of different versions appearing as information is updated.

Do some listening. There isn’t time to use lots of sophisticated tools (they’re on your office computer and you’re staying at Auntie Isobel’s – bear with me on this), so this is going to be a manual job.

Start with the popular forums to see what people are saying: Money Saving Expert is always a good bet as most topical issues seem to be covered here, as well as the comment threads on the website of major newspapers. Try Boardreader too.

Googling the key search terms may sound crude, but is essential. Now that searches helpfully categorise discussions and news, with dates attached, you can see who is saying what, where and when. In my experience this is also an excellent way to flush out those smaller, audience-specific forums that you may not have come across before. Don’t forget this is what your audience are seeing when they Google, so you need to be influencing those first few results in any way you can.

When you find relevant conversations ask yourself:

1. Will this thread benefit from a signpost to the statement, or has the conversation already moved on?

2. Have I read the rules of the forum? Will I cause more problems than I solve by participating?

3. How will I manage if I receive lots of further comments and questions?

If you are happy with your answers to these questions, then go ahead and publish a signpost. I think of a signpost as a succinct comment directing people to the statement. Most importantly you need to match the tone of the forum:

1. Don’t be a spokesperson. You should sound like you: friendly and helpful.
2. Make sure your profile is clear about who you are, and your employer.

You may not want to invite further comments, but need to be prepared to respond if necessary. Some forums won’t allow URLs to be included in a post, so you will need to give people a specific search term of website name to look at. You will almost certainly have to register with the forum.

Searching Twitter will give you a good idea of how the news is unfolding in real time and any associated hash tags that you can include in your messages.

Check your @ mentions and make sure you respond to these as well as sharing the link with your followers.

Search for relevant terms – the terminology your organisation uses may be very different from the words people really use to describe the topic.

Search for related organisations, charities and high profile figures. If they are supporting your statement then that’s good to know and can help allay some fears.

Alternatively, if high profile accounts are going against your statement, you’ll need to know. I wouldn’t advise engaging with them online about this. Your press office, senior staff or stakeholder engagement team are likely to have a relationship here that they can use.

Remember that your approach to digital channels won’t save the day, but it can go a long way to reassuring your core audience and slowing the spread of myths and panic. Demonstrating that something has been done with the channels you have is better than doing nothing at all.

Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/thekellyscope/