Phases of Social Media Crisis Management

Higher education social media managers operated in crisis mode for at least half of this year. It was—yes, I'm going to say it—unprecedented. It also highlighted, for better or worse, the essential role of social media in campus communications. 

Chapter 14 of Fundamentals of Social Media Strategy: A Guide for College Campuses is dedicated to crisis communication, both short-term and ongoing crises. In addition, Krista Boniface and Erin Supinka authored a chapter on wellness and support to promote the importance of time off and support for a social media manager's mental health during an ongoing crisis. 

But, back to crisis mode. There are two types of work in a crisis: posting and monitoring (as Tony Dobies described). Those types of work occur within five phases: discovery, publishing, engaging, listening, and reporting. Many of these phases overlap during a crisis timeline, but they require distinct skills and tactics.


Sometimes, you discover the beginnings of a crisis when your campus is tagged in a suspicious post (e.g., referencing violence, misconduct, or attempting to get attention from a journalist), or you capture something through proactive social listening. In these instances, it's important to know who to contact and how so you can activate the campus crisis response.

Other times, you discover the crisis is brewing from your campus colleagues (e.g., classes are about to be canceled for a number of days, a legal judgement is going to be announced). The discovery phase is still important in this instance, and it's imperative to include the social media manager in crisis response planning as early as possible.

Crisis communication discussions need to include the social media manager. Not only does it help them plan for the publishing phase, but they can use their knowledge of key audiences and anticipate the social media reaction.


As soon as you determine you're entering crisis mode, pause any scheduled content to focus on crisis-related communications. During a crisis, posts celebrating your beautiful campus or the latest faculty research seem tone-deaf to your audience, and you'll hear about it. They're coming to your social accounts to learn about the developing situation and nothing else. This may seem counterintuitive to leadership, but it’s the right move. Here’s how we’ve advised clients in situations like this; feel free to repurpose this message to share with campus leaders.

“Even if you choose not to engage in crisis conversation, be particularly sure that your posts during this time are appropriate for the prevailing sentiment of the moment, and won’t be perceived as tone deaf. While the intent may be to highlight positive stories from campus, an unhappy audience will generally see this as a distraction or diversion from what they’re pushing the campus to address."

Prep statements, considering what's appropriate for each platform you'll use. This requires time. If the situation allows, a social media manager should have somewhere between 30 minutes and a few hours to determine the appropriate posting strategy. The announcement will have to be adjusted for each platform for length, format, tone, and accessibility. Video creation or graphic design may be involved. The earlier you involve them, the shorter this preparation period will be.

In addition to crafting the initial statement, anticipate questions and prep answers. This saves a lot of time in the engagement phase and contributes to higher levels of satisfaction from your audience, even if their initial interaction with you will be negative. This is similar to providing talking points to a spokesperson before they head into an interview (if you have those, share them with your social media manager too).

Once the posts are determined, inform the crisis comms team of the publishing plan and if it varies by platform.


The social media manager's work truly begins after the first statements are posted. Instead of a traditional communications professional who may have a few reporters calling, social media managers will be inundated with responses from dozens or hundreds of students, staff, faculty, alumni, community members, and potentially the press. Plan for these responses using the FAQs you developed in the discovery phase, and aim for timely response if one is allowed/warranted.

To guide responses (and whether or not to respond), some campuses develop a decision tree, like Virginia Tech. Erika Boltz wrote about the Virginia Commonwealth University decision tree on the Brain Waves Blog. She suggests that any campus developing a decision tree involves—at minimum—the social media manager, legal counsel, and campus constituents who are most likely to provide help for urgent needs.

This work could last hours or days. Have a plan to provide backups and relief shifts from other trained staff members. Jaime Hunt, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Miami University, offers this advice to her peers.

“Being a social media manager often means facing the anger of unsatisfied students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, and the community. It's easy to say 'don't take it personally,' but it's very tiring to be on the receiving end of anger and disappointment when you have very little control over any decisions. Recognizing that, whenever we are poised to make an announcement that we know has potential to upset our audiences, I establish three-hour shifts for staff other than the social media manager to monitor and respond in the day or two following the announcement. Everyone gets prepped on how to handle various questions and concerns and they know they can escalate issues to me. I also share that I am doing this with other leaders on campus. The reason is twofold. First, I want them to be responsive if a question or concern is raised that one of my team needs to addressed. Perhaps more importantly, I want them to understand and appreciate how grueling it is to manage community during stressful times.”

I hope in time every social media manager will have this type of support from their chief executive.


I cover social listening in Chapter 11 of the book, but here’s a quick primer if you need one. Especially in a crisis, the volume and complexity of social listening data can be overwhelming. But that doesn't mean you should drop it in favor of engagement. Push for resources that allow you to engage in simultaneous engagement and listening (Campus Sonar can help with the listening part, even on short notice). Whether your role is to work with leaders to inform campus response, respond to individuals on social media, or work with campus safety, timely social listening allows you to answer five key questions in a crisis.

  • How many people are talking about this?
  • How many media sources are covering the story?
  • What are people saying about the issue?
  • Is the conversation growing or fading?
  • Who is influencing the conversation?

To answer these questions, you'll want to consider your replies and DMs, but also what is said about the issue, even if you're not tagged. You can only do this efficiently with social listening software or an expert partner with access to such software. When Campus Sonar provides crisis social listening we consider two perspectives when creating our search queries: finding conversation about the crisis, and identifying as many subtweets about the crisis as possible. (Both of those approaches are detailed in the book

Once your listening is in place, you need to turn this (potentially very long list) of mentions into actionable insights for your crisis communications team and campus leadership.


The purpose of this phase is to report insights, but getting to them requires analysis. The end goal is six key crisis metrics that provide answers to the five key crisis questions in the listening phase.

But first, take a look at your data and see if anything looks a little off. If multiple accounts repeat the same words or phrases, consider that bot activity may have entered the conversation and segment that appropriately. You can't ignore it, though. Real people interact with fake content, so even inaccurate information can drive the conversation. Ultimately, it's important to determine who's influencing the conversation so you can correct the information. Analyzing mentions can help you identify influencers and any non-human elements of the conversation (e.g., bots, fake accounts, etc.).

After you've reviewed your data, calculate the six key crisis metrics. Report your data, along with any observations or recommendations based on your social media expertise, at a cadence that aligns with crisis communication meetings or decision making. Daily is usually fine, although in high-pressure situations twice-daily may be desired. Most social listening platforms also allow you to create a dashboard to view this data in near real-time, if you have communications staff who are dedicated to monitoring the issue. 

After the crisis passes, create a report that covers the entirety of the crisis. Although it may be the last thing you want to do when you're tired and burned out, it can reveal opportunities to improve and help set expectations when the next crisis occurs. Unfortunately, there's always a next crisis.

It’s a lot, I know, but each phase is extremely important to move you from reactive to proactive. If you haven’t yet, download a free copy of Fundamentals of Social Media Strategy: A Guide for College Campuses for more strategy and best practices for social media managers.

Get the book!

This post originally appeared on Campus Sonar's Brain Waves blog.