Why online communities help companies in uncertain times

OK, so things are crazy in the financial markets lately. The media frenzy is ongoing, consumers are frightened, companies are closing or merging daily, and business clients are pulling out or hunkering down Sounds like a crisis, doesn’t it?

So consider this: one of the most fundamental tenets of strong and effective crisis management is communications. Talking to people; letting them know what is happening; quelling rumors and, most important, providing a forum for concerned individuals to get the right information, ask questions, and discuss the issues openly.

The media may fill this role for the rest of us in the current crisis – but what about the organizations – and their stakeholders – in the center of the crisis zone? Now’s the time for those organizations to use their social media tools to help manage this crisis of confidence.

If your organization has an online community for your clients, or an E2E network (employee to employee) consider using it to tackle the tough – and frightening --- questions your community’s members may have. They are already talking with or without your guidance.—at the watercooler, on Yahoo! Finance or Facebook. But this is a real opportunity for organizations to take advantage of the tools they already have, and use them to keep stakeholders and others informed.

Here are a few tips on using online communities for crisis management:

  1. Create a group or forum to openly discuss the key topics using a semi-structured framework to communicate. Lay out the ground rules for how to use the forum, who is leading the discussion and let people know that it is safe to ask whatever questions are on their minds related to the topic.
  2. Invite key executives into the conversation to show their alignment with and dedicated attention to the concerns of community members. This is crucial to showing members their questions are important and taken seriously.
  3. Be proactive and direct in the communications – share key messages in plain language that people can understand.
  4. Seed some questions – especially on hot-potato issues. There are always topics on people’s minds that they are afraid to ask. Ask a visible manager or well-connected person to ask a few tough questions that you can respond to. This will create a stronger collaborative environment.
  5. Time-box the discussion – let it run (and state that it will run) for, perhaps, 2-3 weeks and be sure to close it when participate wanes.
  6. Talk to yourself if need be – if there is little participation early on – then post a message and then follow–up in a few days will another message or information sharing. Some cultures need more encouragement to participate than others.
  7. Don’t say anything that you wouldn’t say to an audience in a conference hall. While openness is key, reckless disclosures will make their way into the public eye faster than you can say “I’ll have to get back to you on that one, Katie."

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