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Though many companies have acknowledged the importance of using social media for releasing corporate news, managing customer service issues, and interacting with key audiences and stakeholders, the recent New York Times website and app outages highlighted one of the more practical and necessary reasons for maintaining a social presence: crisis management.

At approximately 11:00 AM on Wednesday, August 14, the New York Times, one of the largest media outlets in the world, suffered an outage on its website and mobile application platforms. Speculation from other media regarding the cause of the downtime came fast; it was quickly reported as a hacker attack.

But, whatever the facts relating to the cause, when a crisis hit, even the New York Times needed social media to stay ahead of the story and communicate with its customers, proving that social media can be a company's best resource for doing so—even if the company is one of the largest publishers in the world.

The 24/7 365 news cycle was not going to stop and wait for the Times to get its website and apps back up, so instead of relying on its own online and mobile platforms to report the news, the Times turned to its well-established social media resources to continue reporting breaking, timely news as well as to provide updates regarding the company's own status and clarify/dismiss erroneous news being reported by others.

Through the messages that the Times posted on its Facebook, Twitter, and other pages, it was able to effectively manage the crisis by meeting many of the requirements for navigating and communicating during a crisis situation.

This incident, again, helps confirm the importance of social media in crisis communications.

Key considerations in responding to any crisis include the following:

  1. Don't delay. Respond to your audience as soon as possible. Waiting for the issue to "blow over" is never an option.
  2. Acknowledge the situation. Clearly state that there is an issue and that you're aware of it. Not acknowledging the situation might indicate that something is being hidden and drive speculation.
  3. Acknowledge impact and "victims." Indicate the scope of the crisis so that there are no surprises. This includes the impact on the victims, who might include readers and subscribers.
  4. Commit to an investigation. Show that action will be taken to learn how the situation occurred and to make sure that it doesn't happen again. Committing to an investigation often provides a much needed reprieve, as audiences become informed that action is being taken.
  5. Commit to sharing information and cooperating with relevant parties. The crisis is happening in public and others are involved; the information gathered should also be shared with that public.
  6. Share corrective action plan, if available. Your audience will want to know that something is being done to avoid a similar situation in the future. Sharing your plan for preempting another crisis will help reinforce your commitment to them.
  7. Respond in the format in which the crisis was received. It's important to meet your audience on their turf during a crisis. If the crisis broke in a specific medium, such as television, radio, or social media, respond there if possible. Going to where your audience is active will show them that you desire to share information and communicate openly.

The New York Times acknowledged the service issues with its website within the hour, posting messages on Facebook and on Twitter. The Times used all of the proper tactics for effectively communicating to its readers.

Once the website was available, the publication posted and linked to an apology and later wrote an article about what had transpired.

In addition to communicating the status of the company's issue, the Times also used those same platforms to allow its reporters to do their jobs by posting breaking news on social media and continue being competitive in a field where seconds matter.

All companies should have a social media strategy built into their crisis communications plan that includes multiple modes of delivering a message, even if they "buy their ink by the barrel." When a crisis hits, you can't wait until tomorrow's paper to resolve it.

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image of Sandra Fathi

Sandra Fathi is president and founder of Affect, a public relations, marketing, and social media agency located in New York, specializing in technology, healthcare, and professional services.

LinkedIn: Sandra Fathi

Twitter: @sandrafathi