“In the Twitter age” is a term I heard this past week from a slightly frustrated public relations professional talking about how he's been forced to modify his crisis management plan.

And change he must. The best-laid crisis management plan will quickly unravel when information — true, untrue or even malicious — starts spreading on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

So how do PR professionals get from
“being there” in social media to modifying their crisis management plan in the “Twitter age”?

Engagement: More than ever it's important that solid social relationships are being built before a crisis breaks.
Doing the basics on social platforms is a start; being fully engaged with social audiences will help save your reputation at a time of crisis.

Resources: If you don't have someone on social media fulltime then you need to have them on it most of the time. Look at how your organization currently spends time. How much effort is still going into maintaining relationships with a few traditional media types? The ratio of time devoted to traditional media vs. social media needs to be flipped … even if slowly at first.

Listening: From basic free tools such as
Google Alerts to paid services such as Alterian's SM2 or Radian6 you can't afford to NOT be monitoring conversations in social media around your products, your organization and your key people. You don't know what you're missing — literally. And that should be a very frightening prospect.

Black pages: If your news web pages don't have “black pages” (pages designed to go live in response to various issues) you need to prepare them now. Every organization can predict certain types of issues that are likely to arise. Having a landing page that answers some likely first questions and that can go up on your website at a moment's notice is smart planning.

First responders: You've already assigned responsibilities during a crisis, but whose job is it to manage social media messages and to respond to any inaccurate messaging? What is on that person's checklist? Not responding is no longer an option … if it ever was. In the social world silence can equal acknowledgement that things are bad. Your social media first responder needs to understand this and the critical role they are playing in social messaging.

Prioritizing: Which social media platforms need the most attention? Without a doubt Twitter is an instant news service and deserves the most attention. Don't be fooled by the numbers of Twitter users in your organization, your industry or your community. Twitter users are some of the most-educated, most-active and, possibly worst for you in a crisis, most-likely to spread what they see on Twitter via word-of-mouth. In other words their broad influence should be of great concern. Facebook is also a default communication platform by people who are concerned. Be sure to message there too and note that once the heat of the moment dies down the conversation around the crisis will likely linger longer on Facebook.

Follow-up: Once the crisis has passed, don't ignore social media. Find a way to post a reassuring video message from the CEO on YouTube or have someone in authority blog about the event and its successful outcome … load it up with photographs. Be sure to reach out to those who were most active during the crisis to alert them to this follow-up.

Can PR professionals control messaging on social media platforms during a crisis? No. But they can be there, be engaged and can quickly tamp down the small sparks of inaccuracy before they become damaging firestorms of bad information. Social media is changing the PR professionals' job description, what else about crisis management did I leave out?