Cri­sis Com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the So­cial Me­dia Fish­bowl

Thai-American Business (T-AB) Magazine - - Front Page - Writ­ten by: Tom Pol­dre

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.


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.


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.


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.

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