Crisis Communication in the Social Media Fishbowl
Around the turn of the last century, when the introduction of a new phenomenon called the internet was creating quite the buzz and when social media was at best an embryonic concept, the media consultants and trainers in the crisis communication business drew upon a wellestablished set of core principles to guide their actions. The gospel of these tried and true observations and best practices included: “bad news sells” and “if it bleeds it leads,” so expect aggression and emotional reactions; the more gruesome the pictures ( wreckage, fire, carnage, sobbing victims and families), the greater likelihood of coverage; expect a feeding frenzy of questions, misinformation and rumors; have a crisis response plan in place and test it annually; CEOS and senior leadership need to be trained and well- rehearsed to convey clear, consistent, credible and empathetic key messages.
During these prehistoric days of ‘ traditional’ media, we could fit corporate crises into several categories: ‘ external unintentional’ included fire, flood, natural disasters; an ‘ external intentional’ crisis featured such acts as extortion, product tampering, terrorism and vandalism, and ‘ internal intentional’ crises reflected acts such as fraud and financial malfeasance, and knowingly selling defective goods. Each type of crisis generated its own strategies and tactics to speed up recovery and the resumption of normal business operations.
Then, very quickly, crisis management approaches needed to adapt as a convergence of technologies and access to these technologies created a new realm of social media engagement. Communication between audiences and corporations became known as dialogue. The ubiquity of cell phone cameras and smartphone technologies created new armies of citizen journalists.
Suddenly, companies found themselves operating in a social media fishbowl, with the whole world watching. Bad behaviors, meltdowns, inappropriate tweets, on- line insults and transgressions were all there for clicking, sharing, re- tweeting, re- posting and replying to.
CRISIS BY KEYBOARD
This new realm created space for an entirely new category of crisis - the social media crisis, or on- line faux pas, a self- inflicted injury where a company manages to offend through ignorance, carelessness or lack of sensitivity. Here are some examples of recent on- line faux pas:
On Tumblr, American Apparel posted an image of the Challenger space shuttle exploding, mistaking it for a fireworks celebration.
Employees confused 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.
Crisis management trainers and consultants now have a treasure trove of examples to refer to via various social media platforms. My personal favorites include: the office manager in Singapore slapping an employee repeatedly - the incident was uploaded for the world to see on Youtube; the hotel employee in the U. S. who recorded his resignation, complete with a marching band, garnering over four million views; a major pizza chain launching its social media presence after employees post footage of themselves contaminating food with their bodily fluids ( acknowledged as one of the earliest examples of a social media- generated crisis).
Content digitalization and the explosive growth of, and access to, technology makes it all so 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.
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.
A DOUBLE- EDGED SWORD CUTS BOTH WAYS
As if the management of a crisis was not intense and pressurized enough in the traditional media era, today it has become even more so as a result of the double- edge sword of social media. Here is the good news: through social media, you can reach a lot of people very quickly. Here is the bad news: with social media, bad news reaches a lot of people very quickly. What you can expect is an exponential amplification and magnification of an issue.
Social media is effective at introducing new levels of continual dialogue with
customers and other publics to elevate and reinforce a company’s brand profile, but it also creates a new reality of having nowhere to hide. Old school thinking was that, in the event of a crisis or controversy, you took the hit, waited out the storm and the dynamics of the news cycle would mean the story would eventually go away. Now, however, sites such as Youtube become the repository for company and employee misbehavior – a permanent archive of poor service, questionable food safety, or violent abuse at the hands of overzealous security personnel.
Imagine how this upheaval impacts the way companies communicate during a crisis. More complicated? Undoubtedly! Pressurized? Absolutely! It seems that the crisis management industry has been completely upended by the onslaught and prevalence of social media. The way the crisis merchants and masters of disaster have been buzzing, you would think that everything has changed, the rulebook has been thrown in this strange new world of communications response. Corporate crisis mismanagement, however, whether pre- or post social media, echoes the same blunders: “no information,” ” slow response,” “cold, cruel, insensitive” and, perhaps worst of all, “tone deaf.”
So have the fundamentals really changed? Has the management of crisis communications been completely upended by the onslaught of social media?
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 have got to be quick with your timing, appropriate and empathetic with your tone, and prepared for the worst through planning and anticipation.
RESPONSE FUNDAMENTALS: SAMESAME, BUT DIFFERENT!
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.
First, you have got to be quick off the mark. Speed remains essential in responding to any crisis, but especially now in the social media fishbowl. There is 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 U. S. Airways flight 1549 landed on the river ( the “Miracle on the Hudson”), social media accounts lit up less than a minute into the drama ( see chart above).
The head of Kitchenaid responded in eight minutes to that inappropriate tweet about the President’s grandmother, averting a social media maelstrom.
If you do not 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 cannot simply disappear in the middle of a conversation. Call this “getting out in front of the story,” demonstrating that you are aware of the situation, taking action, and not frozen like a deer caught in the headlights.
Next, you have 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 a company 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 will not be available during the early stages of a crisis, hence the desire to avoid comment, but the immediacy of social media requires an acknowledgement that the team is aware of what is happening and acting upon it: containing the crisis, working with the authorities, comforting victims, reviewing procedures and communicating updates.
Finally, as with old school crisis management, a company must plan and prepare - PLAN- ticipate. 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, companies would invest in a social media strategy before the crisis hits ( the middle of a crisis is NOT the time to suddenly show up in social media!).
This requires careful pre- planning. You need smart, mature people manning your channels and creating your content; an understanding of what channels your audiences are on; deployment of social media monitoring tools to keep a fi nger on the pulse and actively participate in the conversations.
So yes, it is a strange new normal in crisis management as the speed, compression, loss of control and misinformation magnified by social media is now even created by social media. But the fundamentals of response are unchanged: timeliness, tone, planning and preparation–all remain as vital as ever to surviving the digital disaster in the social media fish bowl.