Crisis management – standard operating procedures

I flew on Southwest Airlines earlier this week, three days after the company faced – and averted – a major crisis. (This WSJ article contains an excellent synopsis of what transpired.) In contrast, the airline faced a crisis of a very different sort two months earlier, when a movie director with over a million Twitter followers complained about being poorly treated.

In the corporate communications function, crisis management comes with the territory. But with the rise of social media, the communications landscape has changed, introducing new players and parameters into situations. Social media ownership has been unevenly distributed in many companies, which has created havoc in situations where the first responders are often the least prepared. Advertising professionals accustomed to one-way communication. Digital born natives who lack experience. Legal departments not understanding the pace of information flows.

I’ve faced my own social media crisis from the client side – but it was eight years ago, when adoption was low. Today, many companies across many industries have faced social media crises. Take a look at this list and count the number of incidents each year. The good news? A generally accepted process of social media crisis management has emerged – industry standards in many ways. Southwest’s handling of its recent challenges has been commendable and you can see how they employ best practices to high impact.

Here’s an outline for a standard plan that could be deployed in today’s operating environment:


During a crisis

  • Acknowledge situation to create time and space (example: Ford)
  • Understand and respond (example: Southwest Airlines)
  • Syndicate and let others distribute the message (example: Domino’s Pizza)


  • Track new terms related to crisis
  • Thank your supporters; watch your detractors
  • Adjust policy, workflow, and tools as needed

Naturally, these elements go deeper and should be customized according to industry and situation.

UPDATE: Here’s a related checklist, work that my colleague Tom Cummings did prior to Dachis Group.

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  1. With social media maturing I still can’t believe so many institutions neglect to monitor and manage the appropriate social media channels in circumstances such as this. It’s been over 5 years since the July 7th bombings in London and sadly I can’t help but draw a parallel with that terrible day.

    Despite numerous reports across different social channels pointing to a crowd sourced picture of a terrorist event, traditional media outlets continued to follow the government line. In the case of 7/7 the initial story was that a number of electricity substations had exploded. What’s become apparent is the velocity and fecundity of social media messaging is outperforming traditional broadcasting media channels.

    The 3 key stages you’ve outlined Peter is a great action plan for corporations to pursue. I would also add an opportunity under the post crisis sub heading, for corporations to publicly communicate changes in it’s crisis plan and where necessary take accountability for failings in the past.

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