Key Messenger

A critical eye on communication, by Tom Poldre


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Crisis in a Fishbowl, Part II

Today, there’s no question about social media receiving equal consideration alongside traditional “legacy” media when managing response to a crisis. While the media landscape has shifted dramatically, the fundamental principles of speed, tone and planning still apply.

First, you’ve got to be quick off the mark. Speed remains essential in responding to any crisis, but especially now in the social media fishbowl. There’s no time to hide; no response is seldom an option.

Compare two major disasters: the first traditional media report of the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident emerged about 6 hours after its occurrence. Twenty years later, when US Airways flight 1549 (the “Miracle on the Hudson”) landed on the river, social media accounts lit up less than a minute into the drama.

The head of KitchenAid responded in eight minutes to that inappropriate tweet about the President’s grandmother, averting a social media maelstrom.

If you don’t fill the channels with some acknowledgement or appropriate message, everyone else will fill the vacuum with rumor, misinformation and nasty commentary. Since social media is a dialogue with your audiences, you can’t simply disappear in the middle of a conversation.

Call this “getting out in front” of the story, demonstrating that you’re aware of the situation, taking action, and not frozen like a deer caught in the headlights. But what do you say?

Next, you’ve got to strike the right tone – you need to demonstrate “empathy”.

Numerous cases have shown that the inability to get the tone and messaging right is what so often sinks the best intentions of an organization dealing with a crisis. Remember how Tony Hayward, the former head of BP, wanted “… his life back…” in the midst of the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?

It is absolutely vital to quickly express concern and empathy. Complete information won’t be available during the early stages a crisis, hence the desire to avoid comment, but the conversation that is social media requires a message that the team is aware of what’s happening and acting upon it: containing the crisis, working with the authorities, comforting victims, reviewing procedures, communicating updates, taking disciplinary actions…

Finally, as with old-school crisis management, an organization must plan and prepare. Not much should change here; work on the assumption of “not if, but when”.

Comprehensive crisis response plans provide detailed operational and communications procedures including a complete list of all stakeholders and important media outlets. These plans did not get tossed out with the arrival of social media era, but are complemented with a social media component. Ideally, organizations would invest in a social media strategy before the crisis hits. Call it “plan-ticipation”.

This requires careful pre-planning and investment. You need smart, mature people manning your channels and creating your content; anticipating how social media will react when a situation occurs. They must know which channels your audiences are on, and how to deploy the myriad social media monitoring tools to keep a finger “on the pulse” and actively participate in the conversations.

So yes, it’s a strange new normal in crisis management as the speed, compression, loss of control and misinformation magnified by social media are now even created by social media. This means that the fundamentals of response — timeliness, tone and plan-ticipation — are unchanged and perhaps even more critical in that fishbowl we call social media.

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The “New Normal”: Crisis in the Social Media Fishbowl

I gave a couple of presentations recently to local chambers of commerce on “the new normal” of crisis communication in the fishbowl that is social media.

Some video footage always sets the tone early in the talk: An office manager in Singapore slaps an employee repeatedly, an incident uploaded for the world to see on YouTube. A hotel employee in the U.S. records his resignation, complete with marching band (four million people have watched his on-line video). Employees of a major pizza chain post footage of themselves seemingly contaminating food with their body fluids.

This is the new normal of operating in a fishbowl: the prevalence, accessibility and immediacy of social media have quickly created a world where news breaks instantly and previous models of communication have been upended. This is a world where traditional media turn to social media for news; where citizen journalists armed with mobile phones upload scenes of unfolding disaster or brutality with the click of a button.

Imagine how this upheaval impacts the way organizations communicate during a crisis. More complicated? Undoubtedly! Pressurized? Absolutely! And of course, the crisis management industry, the masters of disaster, see the opportunity to revive interest in their practice by highlighting a world of instant on-line catastrophe, complexity and chaos.

But, have the fundamentals really changed? Has the management of crisis communications been completely upended by the onslaught of social media?

My view is that if you strip away the complexity and added pressures from the speed, scope and volume of social media, you’ll discover that the strategy fundamentals remain unchanged. Now, as always, you’ve got to be quick with your timing; appropriate and empathetic with your tone, and prepared for the worst through planning and anticipation.

Content digitalization and the explosive growth of, and access to, technology make social media participation easy: consider the 6 billion hours of YouTube videos watched every month, the 55 million photos posted daily to Instagram, the 5,700 new tweets produced every second.

New Pitfalls in the New Normal

This convergence of speed and volume is most evident when a major crisis or catastrophe hits, with the new normal presenting unique pitfalls which organizations must be aware of and plan for.
There is now an entirely new category of crisis: The social media crisis, or on-line “faux pas”, is the self-inflicted injury where an organization manages to offend through ignorance, carelessness or lack of sensitivity:

On Tumblr, American Apparel posted an image of the Challenger space shuttle exploding, mistaking it for a fireworks celebration. Employees can confuse corporate Twitter handles with their own personal accounts: A KitchenAid employee tweeted out an inappropriate message on the corporate account about President Obama’s grandmother. Similarly, an (ex?) employee at Chrysler’s social media agency tweeted about how people in Detroit can’t drive.

There is also the reality of having “nowhere to hide”, where sites such as YouTube become the repository for company and employee misbehavior – permanent images of poor service, questionable food safety (think chicken processing in China), or violent abuse at the hands of overzealous security personnel.

As if the management of a crisis wasn’t intense and pressurized enough in the pre-social media era, today it becomes even more so as a result of the double-edge sword of social media. Here’s the bad news: with social media, bad news reaches a lot of people very quickly. The good news is that you can reach a lot of people very quickly.

The criticism of corporate crisis mismanagement, however, whether pre or post social media, echoes the same themes: “No information… slow response… cold, cruel, insensitive” and “tone deaf”.

While social media amplifies the speed, pressure, noise, and sheer volume of communication, three fundamental “old school” crisis response principles still apply: the need for speed; the need to demonstrate the appropriate empathetic tone, and the need to plan for the worst.

I’ll go into more detail on these aspects of speed, tone and planning in my next post, to reinforce the premise that the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. Even in the social media fishbowl.