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A critical eye on communication, by Tom Poldre

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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.