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.