A social media presence is the new, smart way to keep in touch with customers and control the conversation during a crisis

It’s an often-repeated (and often disputed) quote by John F. Kennedy: “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”

Despite the controversy of the phrase, there’s no disputing that danger and opportunity are always part of crisis communications, especially for a major corporation. And nowhere is that more evident than in a company’s social media strategy relating to crisis management.

In the oil and gas industry, crisis management is more important than ever, given the industry’s history with recent tragedies such as the BP Gulf Coast oil spill and ExxonMobil’s Pegasus Pipeline leak. Without social media engagement by a company, the rumor mill and overactive media can shape (and warp) a story in ways that can be detrimental.

Related: Exploring the Legal Ramifications of Social Media

Be prepared

Many social media companies and experts agree on a few things for an oil and gas company’s approach to social media. First and foremost, have a social media strategy and presence before a crisis occurs. It’s imperative to build a channel, audience and reputation prior to problems plaguing the company.

“You want to be prepared, and you want to have a platform,” says Shawn Alain, president of Viral in Nature, a social media firm in Canada. That presence can include a corporate website, a blog and presences on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other vital sites.

Related: Do You Have a Risk Management Plan?

Foster Marketing, which has worked with many energy companies on branding, advertising and social media, issued a 2010 social media guide for the oil and gas industry. In it, they note, “Unfortunately, companies are all too often caught completely off guard and unprepared to face the communications challenges that surround crises or emergencies. … Being prepared enables your company to present a strong, confident, capable image.

“In addition, if handled correctly, crises can even help to open a positive dialog between your company and the media, your customers and potential customers.”

That dialog, experts admit, can be daunting to management at many companies. “They may not want negative comments,” says Alain. However, he adds, “Those are going to happen; it’s just a question of where do you want them to happen,” such as on a corporate-sponsored website or floating all over the Internet.

Related: Editor's Notebook: If You’re Tired Of Hearing Nothing But Bad About The Industry, It’s Time To Do Something About It

Alain suggests that companies create a blog on their corporate website “where they can allow for comments … let the conversation happen.”

Companies can also then respond accordingly. And by accordingly, Alain notes that authenticity and a proper tone are essential. Tone can easily be misread online, so being authentic and honest with the public is essential. So is being on top of the dialog … all the time.

“If you’re actually in a crisis, you should be managing (your social media presence) 24 hours a day and be able to react,” he says. “In some cases, eight hours (to respond) could be a lifetime.”

Platforms like Twitter are especially good for sending instant commentary, especially when situations are changing by the second, as they often do in a crisis.

Time is a game changer

Time is often a reason oil and gas companies may be hesitant to create or maintain a social media presence. According to Alain, “Time is the reason for 90 percent of our clients; they don’t have time to do it.” That’s why hiring a social media firm can be ideal.

“When it comes to a crisis, it absolutely is beneficial to have an outside company do it,” says Alain. “One of the reasons is when your business is under attack, you’re going to be emotional, your tempers will flare. If you hire an outside company, (the social media company) isn’t emotionally attached.”

For more information on the benefits of a strong a social media presence, see 9 Reasons to Step Up Your Social Media Game.

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