How to Use Social Listening in a Crisis on Campus

Thanks to social media, the news cycle is now. Which means communications teams need to be plugged into their campus’s online conversation if they want to effectively monitor and manage a crisis. 

There are five phases to social media strategy in a crisis: discovery, publishing, engaging, listening, and reporting. Since we’re all about listening, I want to specifically break down that phase, including five key questions you need to answer before implementing your crisis response strategy.  

  1. How many people are talking about the issue, and how are they talking about it?
  2. How many media sources are covering the issue?
  3. What are people saying about the issue?
  4. Is the conversation growing or fading?
  5. Who is influencing the conversation?

Steps to Answer Crisis Questions

Create Your Crisis Search Query

Let’s start with answering the first two questions. Creating a crisis search query will provide preliminary answers. 

  1. How many people are talking about the issue, and how are they talking about it?
  2. How many media sources are covering the issue?

Ideally, your ongoing listening alerted you to the issue at hand, or maybe the issue made you realize the importance of social listening. Either way, it's important to build a search query that finds all relevant conversation about the issue. This is important for two reasons. 

  1. You can focus on the issue and ignore the other conversations related to your brand that happen on a regular day. 
  2. You understand how intertwined your brand is with the issue (e.g., do all crisis conversations mention your brand, or only a small percentage?).

A thorough search query might have up to five components.

  • Who are the protagonists, victims, whistleblowers, accusers, accused, plaintiffs, defendants, heroes, villains, etc.? Gather a full list and identify all potential spellings and versions of the names of these individuals and organizations.
  • What is the subject of the issue? Think about words likely to appear in a news headline or what someone might say when they say, "Hey, did you hear about … ?"
  • Where is the issue happening? You may need to include a city, state, or even a street name or building in your search.
  • When did the issue happen? The day of the week, time of day, or even month of the year may be relevant if the issue is something organizations face on a regular basis.
  • How are people talking about the issue? Consider not just original posts, but also how the conversation is extending into comments and replies.

Once you identify these components, create the initial search query. While this step should happen as soon as possible, it's more important that the search is accurate and comprehensive to avoid the potential for finding only a portion of the conversation. This may require testing different terms and phrases together to refine the query to the best of your ability. If you're using social listening software, you can write this query and find results across all online sites, including Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, news media, blogs, forums, and Instagram. If you don't have social listening software, you'll need to use a mixture of advanced Twitter search and Google. You can get tips and examples for how to do this in our cheat sheet.

Create Contextual Crisis Search Queries

Adding a contextual search query and combining the results helps you effectively answer the third and fourth crisis questions.

  1. What are people saying about the issue?
  2. Is the conversation growing or fading?

Not every mention in the crisis conversation will match your first search query so this step is crucial to gaining a true understanding of the conversation. Subtweeting is real, but it's also common for people to state their true feelings on an issue without restating the subject in their message. For example, I might tweet, “The person in charge of this organization should be removed” with a link to a news story. The crisis communication manager should be aware of how I'm talking about the issue. Creating a contextual query will help find mentions where thoughts are shared without specifically addressing the campus or naming the issue.

To find these mentions, create a separate search query that includes links to all the media stories from the first search, as well as any issue-specific hashtags. Create a Twitter search using the example, and the results will include all the tweets with links to the news stories. OR OR

Relevant insights might include:

  • General sentiment of conversation (i.e., is it positive or negative)
  • What questions people ask that your issue statement and social media responses might answer
  • If any misinformation is being spread 

In a situation where thousands of conversations can happen, this can be hard to do with a Twitter search, but some analysis is better than nothing. Social listening software and an experienced staff member will enable quick analysis of conversation and identification of the relevant insights. This initial analysis is vital information to share with your leadership and crisis communication team.

Analyze Who's Driving the Conversation

Lastly, we'll answer the fifth crisis question. 

  1. Who is influencing the conversation?

To stay ahead of the issue, you need to know who's influencing the conversation. Determine what tweets are being retweeted, what news outlets, journalists, and articles are linked to most often, and the thought leaders who are involved in the conversation. Also consider if the news outlet discussion is from local, regional, or national sources. 

This analysis is constant and should continue as long as the issue is considered an issue. Being aware that a journalist is soliciting quotes from the public, or that an expert released an opinion, gives your media relations team the information it needs to identify more breaking news before it happens.

Another valuable analysis at this stage is to determine if the accounts posting messages are real people, or bots. Yes, this is a real thing that needs to be done. Particularly in an issue with political implications, bot networks are regularly used to spread polarizing information. 

Monitor Conversation for Changes and Trends

By now, you have a steady stream of new mentions coming in from your search queries. It's important to have at least one person in charge of monitoring new mentions and reporting on trends. How often you do this depends on the size of the conversation and the sensitivity of the issue; it could require checking once or twice a day or constant monitoring. Your goal is to see if any of the answers to the five crisis questions change so you can anticipate any adjustments you need to make to your crisis response strategy.

Move on to Reporting

That was a lot, I know, but each phase is extremely important to move you from reactive to proactive. The next and last phase in crisis management is reporting. You can learn more about it in Chapter 14 of Fundamentals of Social Media Strategy: A Guide for College Campuses. Along with crisis management, the free book includes all of the strategy and best practices you need to manage a social media program on campus.

Download the book