New Age Crisis Communications

10 years, 2 months ago


Handling a crisis in today’s era of social networking and video sharing websites requires a fresh approach, writes Anne Costello.

At some point in a darkened room, a wise and learned soul sat down and created the original PR crisis communications course. Much like a cherished family heirloom, this course has been handed down through the generations and across the agencies, tweaked occasionally, but it essentially says the same things.

It tells us the first 24 hours is the only 24 hours. It reinforces that crises can smoulder or be sudden, that understanding the news cycle is critical. It also instructs that candour is one of the best tools in an executive’s arsenal.

It is a sad reality that this family heirloom is too often dusted off once a crisis has hit – or following a poorly managed crisis. The challenge is that today the dynamics of a crisis have changed. Social media has turned some of the old rules on their heads. While we happily praise the virtues of social media’s ability to enable business through appropriate community engagement, the darker side of social media is often glossed over, or even ignored.

Several recent events have hopefully slapped the collective faces of companies that happily employ the ‘ostrich approach’ (i.e. head in the sand) to crisis management. The first relates to Domino’s Pizza. This decades-old global brand reinforces an image of fresh, hot food prepared by happy, enthusiastic workers. It received a wake-up call on April 12 this year when two employees felt compelled to post a video to YouTube showing them performing various unsavoury acts on food products. See the video; you’ll know what I mean.

Viewed by millions

What’s interesting is that prior to the age of YouTube, such a thing may have been limited to a video cassette played at frat parties. But within 48 hours, the offensive video had been viewed millions of times. Domino’s did many of the right things in responding – it posted its own YouTube video, and replied directly to the blogger that broke the story.

The company – and hopefully others like it – learned a lesson in how easy it is for idiots with video cameras to cause a brand considerable damage.

Another topical crisis that has raised questions over the role of social media in a crisis is the recent Swine Flu/H1N1 outbreak. Social media flavour of the moment Twitter came under fire for spreading misinformation. Such was the level of incorrect tweets, that mainstream media saw it as an opportunity to quite rightly raise questions over Twitter’s credibility.

On the positive side, the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) has used Twitter as a force for good to spread reliable and accurate information. Its followers grew from 2,621 (April 23) to 108,475 (May 6, 2009) to now 1,069,636 (November 3).

The challenge

So, what to do? Traditional media channels are increasingly feeding on crises and issues that break through social media. Channels such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have become trusted sources – but their ability to misinform or mislead is as powerful as traditional media’s historical ability to credibly inform and lead.

There are three fundamentals that all companies need to take on board today:

Be vigilant:
Understand the social and traditional media landscape and monitor for issues in real time. This is commonsense, but companies are still being surprised. Make sure employees’ actions in social media channels are also under review.

Fish where the fish are:
Ensure you have a credible presence in key social media channels in advance. Just as with mainstream media, a crisis is the worst time to make a first impression. Companies need to be part of key communities if they hope to secure support in times of crisis.

Change plans: Unlike the crisis plans of old, don’t wait until the crisis to bring it out of the drawer. Crisis preparedness needs to be part of the daily communications mix – starting with something as simple as listening to the conversation that’s already going on 24x7.



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The Author

Anne Costello

Anne Costello is Regional Director for Text100 Asia Pacific.

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