Given the number of crisis situations gaining high-profile attention through social media, I decided to look at how the addition of social media to crisis scenarios has disrupted the field of corporate communications. This post looks at my thesis findings to help show how crisis communications experts view social media’s impact, particularly in relation to established responses and theories. Arguably, social media have initiated a change in the functioning of corporations that impacts the development of crises and crisis communications.
Social media provide ordinary citizens with the ability to become key players in the construction and framing of crises according to Phillips and Young (2007). My thesis proposed that social media dynamics have influenced how crises emerge and take shape, and are likely provoking a change in how corporations approach crisis communications. To explore my research questions regarding the impact of social media on how crises are defined, responses and established theories, I undertook a series of in-depth, semi-structured interviews with key subject-matter experts in Canada and the United States. For experts, there was no one definition of a crisis, nor is there even one agreed-upon requirement for a crisis to be defined as such. Social media developments did not fundamentally change the participants’ definition of what constituted a crisis. Looking at the impact of social media, customer service experience was described as amplifying negative situations beyond what they would have been previously.
Social media also increase the probability of a crisis occurring because of the much broader range of prospective complainants—consumers, activists, journalists and others—monitoring the corporate environment for minor to serious transgressions. The speed with which information can move immediately was identified as meaning a crisis can escalate to a major scale within days, hours or even minutes.
Further, the participants acknowledged that social media afford opportunities for the spread of misinformation to be published, even to create a crisis. As a result, the participants endorsed a strategy of being committed to dialogue with the public especially in the event of a crisis, a concept reflected in Grunig’s two-way symmetrical model of public relations.
Corporations were advised by the participants to monitor social media communications in real time, particularly during a crisis.


My thesis concludes that social media dynamics have led a re-emphasis or disruption of established crisis communication strategies and theories.
These approaches to crisis communications have become ineffective and frankly more dangerous to the corporation’s reputation and image in the long run. My thesis revealed that social media have impacted how crises emerge and take form, and the strategies and requirements of crisis communications by affected organizations. I believe that by following the advice provided by my research participants, corporations that transgress will not have their crises amplified to the same degree and can better maintain credibility and trust, a good relationship with their public, stakeholders and consumers, gain respect and allies, and experience a shortened lifetime of a crisis. This thesis offers a set of recommendations that could be the difference between the end of a crisis and the end of a corporation. For more information on crisis communications in the social media era, you are invited to read my MA thesis or contact me by email. Tegan Ford, MA, is a recent graduate of the MA Communications program at Carleton University, where she studied crisis communications in a social media era. I was doing some research for my own grad school paper on the use of social media in crisis communications. This research forms the foundation of my Masters of Arts in Communications program at Carleton University. Literature highlights social media’s influence in the following ways: speed, engagement, control of the message, interactivity, authenticity, boundaries, visibility and transparency, and crisis facilitation and triggers. Properties of a crisis, in order from most to least agreed-upon criteria, comprise a negative impact on the brand or reputation, monetary impact, harm to individuals outside of the organization, for some, this must include injury or death, prevention of daily functions, and threat or potential of damage. However, some felt that social media modified the dynamics underlying the development of a crisis. Bob LeDrew observed, “The potential for mockery, satire, and parody and mean-spirited impostering is also there in a way that wasn’t before.” This satire serves to disrupt and refresh the narrative of a crisis. This serves to identify impending issues and allow organizations to avert an issue on track to escalate into a crisis.


They argued social media amplify events, increases the likelihood of a crisis occurring, and can offer a platform to create a crisis. In the case of a crisis, this means it can be revealed publicly, globally, making containment of the crisis and its impacts (real and imagined) difficult, if not impossible.
Today incorrect information can be intentionally published to negatively affect a brand, and in some cases to start a crisis. This is an important element of successful crisis communications today, which the participants agreed, potentially, creates a cushion of goodwill, a sense of trust, and a notion of credibility, one that will assist the organization in minimizing damage to its reputation and brand, and rebuild the image once the period of crisis has passed. Ongoing monitoring entails the organization staying current with public sentiment and concern during a crisis.
In the realm of social media, where the audience expects two-way communication flows, corporate adoption of the two-way model of communication—a sustained balanced dialogue where the organization listens to the concerns of the public and encourages an open and honest, mutually beneficial relationship between the corporation and the stakeholders—is now increasingly more valuable to adopt, especially in the case of a crisis.
All argued social media amplify otherwise discrete events into potentially large-scale crises; some of which may have faded quickly without the existence of social media.
Such relationships must be fully established before the onset of a crisis to create “brand advocates” who will come to the organization’s defence in the event of a crisis. It provides corporations with rich data that can be used as feedback for their communications and to inform their responses. So people like me, our job is to stomp out false fires.” The consequences of such change require instantaneous responses, with less time to construct a response in the event of a crisis.
However, the scale of comments being generated through social media in a crisis was noted as a problem.



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