My friends have always been incredibly important to me.

When we moved house three years ago, one of the criteria was we had to be within a short Uber ride of our wine club, a monthly meetup of six old friends to drink and talk about wine. But it wasn’t until Covid hit that I realised just how important that group of friends is.

Ubers might have gone out of the window, but wine club continued, at first over Zoom, and then al fresco in gardens and parks. We started walking together, waving through windows, chatting (and occasionally crying) at a distance on pavements.

The world was in crisis, but our little community of friends kept us all sane in those early months.

When a crisis hits, people turn to their communities..

Local groups thrived during the pandemic. Many relied on NextDoor, Facebook Local or neighbourhood WhatsApp groups to find out where you could buy flour locally, or who needed help with shopping if they were isolating. You can live on the same street for years in London (where I live) and not meet your neighbours. In those first three months of lockdown, I got to know most of them.

Work and professional interest-based communities flourished, too.

When we all worked from home, employee communities, and sector or interest groups -  like many of the communities hosted on Guild - helped us all share information, ideas and support. They continue to thrive and they help us feel connected.

In a crisis, whether it’s a global pandemic or something more business-specific, communities come into their own. And they should be part of your crisis planning.

Communities for employees, customers, users, fans, or campaigners can all have a direct influence on the outcome of your crisis.

If you have a data breach or a product recall issue, and you need to reach customers quickly, an active, managed online community will be the fastest, most effective way to do that.

Understanding your communities’ values can help you form your crisis strategy

The biggest public backlash against an organisation happens when it behaves in a way that goes against its own values, or the values of its audiences.

Understanding what those values are could help you avoid a reputational disaster. The first warning signals that you’re stepping out of line will come from your community – so you need to be listening.

Being connected to your community can be really important when you’re dealing with a backlash on complex social issues. For example: say you’re a brand running a Pride campaign, in line with your core values of diversity and inclusion. Chances are, you’ll face a backlash from some people with homophobic or transphobic views  - sadly, we see this a lot on social media.

Knowing the position and values of your core audience, who support you, can help you stand firm and stick to your values and beliefs, secure in the knowledge you’re doing the right thing.

If you operate a community of people you know and trust – customers, super users or influencers, for example – you can test your crisis response with them, and track how they are responding to messages and actions through the crisis.

This can be really helpful in formulating your strategy and adapting your communication as the crisis unfolds.

Monitoring unmanaged communities for rumours and misinformation

There are downsides to unmanaged communities, which need careful management.

Unmanaged communities, particularly on mainstream social media, can be a haven of rumour and misinformation. In the early days of the pandemic, mis- and dis-information about how to protect yourself from the virus spread like wildfire.

In times of crisis, we are in a state of heightened anxiety, and we believe information that plays to our fears, or to our hopes. Some people desperately wanted to believe that gargling with salt water would prevent Covid, or that helicopters were spraying disinfectant over cities at night.

We are susceptible to information that confirms our own bias. Unchecked, that misinformation could have lethal consequences.

This isn’t a new thing. In 1942, during World War Two, two American Psychologists Gordon Allport and Robert Knapp set up a ‘Rumor Clinic’ at Harvard to tackle war-related rumours that were spreading through the US.

Volunteers went into the community, particularly to hair salons and cafes, listening for rumours and reporting them back to the clinic. Every week in the Boston Daily Herald, a rumour was published and debunked by Allport and Knapp with the help of local experts. The rumour was then analysed, and counter-information distributed.

Within a year, nearly 50 Rumor Clinics had been set up across the US.

Today, those rumours are spread through online channels, and the volunteers listening to them have been replaced by monitoring and social listening tools.

But the principle is important.

In a crisis, you’ll most likely hear the first whispers of something going wrong, or a threat to your reputation, from your community and from social media.

If you’re lucky, you’ll hear it early enough that you can do something to put it right.

In the case of rumour or misinformation, you can counter it with facts. You can only deal with the information you know about.

An unmanaged community could be where your crisis starts

Unmanaged communities can even be where a crisis starts.

Look at the horrific ‘rape chat’ scandal that hit Warwick University in 2019, when a group of students were found to be sharing sexually violent messages on a Facebook Group chat.

The University was completely unprepared to deal with it, and unable to protect its students.

The crisis led to a public outcry, and an independent review concluded that Warwick’s handling of the crisis was ‘profoundly unsatisfactory… for almost every single person involved.’

A managed community can advocate for your brand

An engaged community can help you amplify your communications efforts through a crisis, and even advocate for you if its members trust you.

The people in your community will be, by their nature, those who are most interested in what you have to say.

Update them regularly. Take the time to listen to their concerns, and answer their questions – even the difficult ones. Communicate with empathy, correct misinformation, speak like a human, and be honest about what’s happening. Build trust – the most precious commodity in a crisis.

If you have engaged, established communities who trust you, your communications job during a crisis is suddenly a whole lot easier. But creating them takes time and effort. You can’t build a community overnight, and certainly not in the middle of a crisis. The hard work happens in peacetime.

As influencer marketing consultant and writer, Scott Guthrie, advised me when I was researching and writing a book on crisis communications: “Make friends when you don’t need them, not just when you do.”

And we’ve all found out just how much we need our friends in the last two years.

About the author

Kate Hartley is co-founder of crisis simulation company, Polpeo, and the author of How to Communicate in a Crisis’ (Kogan Page, 2019).

Kate Hartley is co-founder of crisis simulation company, Polpeo, and the author of How to Communicate in a Crisis’ (Kogan Page, 2019).

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