Crisis Planning in the Digital Age

11 years, 11 months ago


Bad news stories spread faster than wildfire in this digital age and negative online comment can fan the flames, causing enormous reputational damage. Julie Atherton offers advice on preparing for and dealing with a crisis in the era of blogs and social me

Digital technology has changed the communications game, particularly in times of crisis. Today, the Internet is often the first and only point of interaction between an organization and its most important audiences. Moreover, in today’s Web 2.0 world, social media can challenge existing perceptions of trust and transparency and democratize the media landscape.

Yet digital technology is also empowering corporations to openly engage target audiences in direct, authentic and transparent conversations – with greater speed and efficiency than ever before. This presents a powerful opportunity indeed, especially in crisis situations.

Managing the changing communications landscape

Effective crisis communications today must acknowledge the impact that digital and social media are having. Some of the changes we have seen shift the landscape are:

1. The ability of any stakeholder, whether employee, citizen, activist to capture and share sights and sounds of incidents via the online channel, accelerating the speed by which information is shared.
2. The proliferation of new sources of content (blogs, etc.) that can escalate the potential threat of misinformation and speculation.
3. The increased reliance of mainstream media on these new information sources for story ideas, quotable quotes and content.
4. The permanent impact that digital can have on a reputation.
5. The power of social media to enable timely and effective grassroots mobilization.
6. The potential for rumor and misinformation to arise and rapidly proliferate in the hours and days following a crisis.
7. The potential for an organization’s own Web site (and those of its advocates) to address issues directly and the ability to serve as the first, and often, only point of contact with stakeholders.

Questions you should be asking now

Communicators must rethink their current risk management processes, considering a number of critical questions:

• Are you listening to conversations taking place outside of traditional media? How frequently? Do you have the appropriate analytic tools and guidelines to determine the level of threat or opportunity?
• Is your online footprint and Web infrastructure capable of meeting today’s rapid-response and transparency requirements for communicating effectively?
• Does your organization have the appropriate framework and guidelines in place to enable stakeholder engagement through blogs, Twitter, Facebook and others?
• Does your existing crisis plan outline the required roles and responsibilities, and does it effectively position digital as a vital element within the overall response framework?

Elements of an effective digital crisis strategy

Professionals charged with overseeing crisis communications preparedness and activation within their organizationsmust consider the following program elements and principles. Each principle should be evaluated within the context of local markets, regulations, and culture:

Consistent monitoring of traditional and non-traditional media

• Permanent vigilance – across all media channels – is now a critical imperative for effective risk mitigation, and is the first line of defense when developing a strategy in a time of crisis.

Developing a management processes of the online footprint

• A risk management program must include the appropriate integration of social media tools, including but not limited to a socially-optimized newsroom, dark site, Twitter, RSS feeds, video and other assets.

Establishing proactive online engagement protocols

• Knowing if, when, and how proactive consumer or stakeholder engagement should be undertaken is a critical component of effective digital risk mitigation. In the H&K "Digital Risk Management" paper (spring 2009), we noticed in our research that where plans are not predefined, organizations are more likely to invade the online space with tactics that could inflame, rather than mitigate an issue.

Updating existing crisis training programs

• All functional areas within an organization that could potentially be involved in a crisis organization – including executive, legal, HR, and IT – must have a clear understanding of the rationale for doing so and be aware of the imperatives for speed, flexibility and transparency.

Ensuring appropriate balance between traditional and social media activity

• Traditional channels remain a critical information source. Recognizing and emphasizing the dual importance of traditional media will be part of any successful risk mitigation initiative.

Establishing a social media footprint before a crisis hits

• Establishing a brand or corporate voice in the space before a crisis emerges allows organizations to develop a natural repository of good faith and advocacy.

Recognizing that social media is still only a channel – Content is king!

• The real value of any communication – social media included – remains the quality of the content being disseminated around the actions a brand or company is taking, the empathy for affected stakeholders being displayed, and the appropriateness and relevance of the context and perspective being provided.


The importance of the Web during times of crisis cannot be underestimated. With the right strategic elements in place, organizations can leverage the power of the digital world to not only survive a crisis, but strengthen their stakeholder relationships as well.



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The Author

Julie Atherton

Julie Atherton, Worldwide Director, Digital, Hill & Knowlton

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