The speed with which social media spreads news around the world means global businesses trying to defend their reputation during a crisis need to significantly accelerate their response systems, according to an international survey of senior crisis communications advisers by international law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

The research, based on extensive in-depth interviews with senior communications professionals responsible for advising some of the world's largest organizations, found that more than a quarter (28 percent) of crises reported spread internationally within an hour, and over two thirds (69 percent) within 24 hours.

News of a crisis that spreads outside of the country of origin will reach an average of 11 countries, and social media play a significant role in spreading the story: within the country of origin in half (50 percent) of cases and globally in almost a third (30 percent) of cases. 

The inability to control reputational crises in the early stages can prove hugely costly for a business, affecting its value, revenue and long-term reputation. Yet businesses are not moving fast enough to contain a crisis when it breaks despite having between a few days and several months' notice to plan a response in almost six out of 10 (58 percent) cases.

On average it takes 21 hours before companies are able to issue meaningful external communications (signed off by their legal advisers) to try and manage the issue and more than 48 hours in a fifth (18 percent) of incidents.

According to Julian Long, a corporate partner and crisis management expert at Freshfields; “Until recently, responding to a crisis by initiating a thorough investigation bought companies a little bit of time to agree a fuller response with management and the company's legal advisers. Today, largely as a result of the growth in social media use, the window to buy more time has virtually disappeared. The moment a negative story breaks it has the potential of spreading like wildfire to the other side of the world.”

Half (50 percent) of the communications advisers surveyed believe organisations are not adequately prepared to handle such situations, and a clear majority (94 percent) said that failing to prepare to effectively handle the issue online leaves an organisation open to "trial by Twitter." Almost two-thirds (63 percent) believe the businesses they have recently advised in relation to a significant crisis could have foreseen the event and better prepared for it.