Nestle may currently be experiencing its biggest ever exercise in crisis management following a ban on one of its products in India.
Social media is rife with videos and updates about the dangers of consuming Maggi two-minute instant noodles thought to contain high levels of lead.
The Swiss food giant has even hired US public relations agency APCO Worldwide to help restore its reputation after the debacle, which has tarnished the company's image around the globe.
While it is yet to be seen how Nestle and APCO's corporate affairs teams will wriggle out of this public relations disaster, there is much to be said about how social media can be used to manage an image-related crisis.
When does crisis management start?
A basic principle of reputation management is to prepare a strategy that addresses how the company will manage a crisis before it actually occurs.
US-based trade association PR Council says the way organisations can achieve this is by assessing their strengths such as facilities, people and products, followed by identifying the most dangerous and likely threats.
This exercise will ensure the company has a "solid response plan" when a crisis takes place.
In Nestle's case, Maggi is essentially the company's flagship product in India. When it came under attack, instead of engaging its social media strategy to prevent the crisis from accelerating, the executives chose to ignore the issue – controlling it online would have at the very least curtailed the severity of the disaster.
According to a whitepaper published by the PR Council, accepting a crisis is a smart move.
"Remember acknowledging a crisis is not synonymous with accepting responsibility," reads the study.
How potent is social media?
The social media landscape is quite vast and is growing at an unprecedented pace. This means businesses have the opportunity to engage with the community like never before.
However, it follows that crises, too, unravel at an unparalleled rate. In such instances, a company should focus on making sure the public understands that an incident is being taken seriously.
For Nestle, engaging with the online community early on would have ensured that their voice was a key element of the narrative right at the outset.
How can a company engage social media to manage a crisis?
Following from this recent example, there is a lot that corporate affairs executives can learn about using social media to manage a crisis.
Here are three strategies that may help:
1. Monitor the crisis
Social media is a place where people vent their frustrations. Companies can use comments from the online community to gauge how serious an issue is. Doing this quickly mitigates the risk of a crisis getting out of hand.
2 . Develop a company-wide social media policy
Casual remarks on social media also put information in the public sphere.
It is no longer enough to iterate to employees that only the communications team will make a formal comment.
Casual remarks on social media also put information in the public sphere, and hence it is best to stipulate clear guidelines on how staff should use social media.
3. Reduced response times
According to research by the PR Council, companies have a very limited window of time to respond if a crisis begins on unfold on social media – issues that unravel on Facebook allow turnaround times of around 12 hours, while Twitter is even more uncompromising – it takes only minutes for a online disaster to spread.
This implies that corporate affairs teams must be ready to respond to a public relations disaster at any time.