Textbook definition: A trending topic is a subject that experiences a surge in popularity on one or more social media platforms for a limited duration of time. Trending topics are determined by algorithms created by the site on which the topic appears.
Cultural definition: An idea that exists almost exclusively on social media, whether it’s a timely Twitter hashtag, a viral TikTok, a highly viewed story from an Instagram influencer or a Facebook post that every person you friended in high school but don’t remember (or care) who they are reshares.
In public relations, there’s a lot of advantages to having a strategic media response plan to trending topics – especially if it’s negative one. Establishing an agile PR response in advance can not only boost your media presence, but it can help your brand’s online reputation management in a social media or PR crisis.
Identifying the Trend Through Social Listening
Trending topics often stem from pop culture situations — taking form in current events, celebrity announcements, TV premiers, social unrest, breaking news and viral content. Just like the iconic movie Mean Girls, the limit does not exist for how long a topic can stay popular, although trending topics tend to have a shelf-life of one day to one week.
Oftentimes, these trends can be identified through hashtags. But they can also be as simple as a keyword used frequently on a social media. Some platforms, like Twitter, have specific pages or links dedicated to trends, while others show up in or near search results.
To keep up with trends, you need to be an active social listener. This means monitoring the news to see what issues and themes continuously come up — and not just on one social platform, but throughout all social sites.
Building the Communications Strategy
Background Check the Topic
An issue that mostly applies to organizations face that don’t research hashtags or keywords before posting. US baked goods makers Entenmann’s once tweeted an incredibly inappropriately-timed #notguilty tweet the same day that the Casey Anthony verdict was announced. They quickly responded to the tweet apologizing for the mistake. Although a trending hashtag may seem innocent, it’s important for companies to proactively scan the week’s trending topics and running tweets before going live.
Disasters Need a Careful Approach
When a tragedy strikes, there’s a lot of positive to posting publicly in the immediate aftermath – it shows empathy and concern. Nevertheless, a lot of companies overdo it with too much branding, changing the tone of their communication from compassionate to disrespectful. Oftentimes, insensitive social media posts can cause an organization to become a trending topic themselves, but not for the right reasons. Not all publicity is good publicity. Negative publicity exists, and this is an unfortunate way many organizations find themselves in a PR crisis. Think of how many companies reacted to the social events that happened during the rollercoaster that was 2020. From racial injustice, economic and environmental disasters, political upheaval and a global pandemic, companies were expected to respond and respond appropriately. To avoid any issues in your company’s response, it’s important to stay relevant to the situation, keep all company branding to a minimum and lead with empathy.
Crisis Response vs. Crisis Management
There’s a difference between responding to a crisis and managing one. A crisis can have a significant threat to an organization’s brand reputation and have negative consequences. A crisis response means a quick PR reaction to a disaster, oftentimes after social media has already made the topic viral. Crisis management is designed to prevent or limit the damage a crisis situation can inflict on an organization and its stakeholders by having a strategy in place. It’s important for companies to have a strategic crisis communication plan in place for certain social or political topics, so they have an efficient and consistent response that can be shared with all management levels and key stakeholders.
Unfortunately, the biggest threat to crisis management is social media. During a social media crisis, the public can spread information much faster and to a wider audience through their social platforms from Twitter and Facebook to Reddit and TikTok. The public can express their opinions, spread rumors and experiences with high visibility. No stories are local anymore, especially if you’re an international brand. Social media has made for a global news audience and not all audiences have the same social platforms or customs.
An effective crisis management plan is to be prepared to address a crisis in all markets and across all borders.
The Benefits of the Communications Strategy
Active participation in trending discussions can increase brand awareness among your target audience and make your organization more relevant to its consumers. It’s important to be cautious and ensure any PR response virtually guarantees a positive influence among consumers.
Almost always, brands can dig themselves out of a hole or increase brand awareness by leveraging a trending topic, especially if they have the luck of going viral.