Crisis communication in the era of social media

Copy of my article on IPRA Frontline

 

Social media are fundamentally changing the way people inform themselves, interact, and engage in issues they deem relevant.  At virtually no cost, consumers can gather likeminded people around the world to rally for (or against) a case. NGOs collect thousands of views of a campaign video, sometimes without the targeted organization even knowing about it. While in the past, a couple of calls from journalists would have rang an alarm bell, today a storm may build up in the depths of the internet without the victim really noticing it.

No wonder that corporate communicators do regard social media as a major threat in crisis situations. Yet few companies have procedures in place to properly handle them, as a survey carried out in August 2010 by Gartner Communications demonstrated. So it might be time to put some basics in place.

Speed

Dramatically enhanced speed may be the most obvious impact of social media on crisis handling. Everything moves much faster than just some years ago – the evolution of campaigns, the international expansion of a story, the activation of support groups and stakeholders.

Response times, once determined by publishing deadlines of daily newspapers, have shrunk to hours or minutes in dealing with postings and tweets. This requires new strategies and processes. For example, even if a corporate communications team does not proactively use social media, it should at least understand how the most important platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, most recently Google+) function and understand their netiquettes.

Also, as in any traditional crisis preparation, identifying relevant influencers upfront is crucial, if it is just through free tools like Klout.com or blogpulse.com.

Complexity

Along with higher speed, things get more complex. Gone are the days when monitoring your handful of national papers and major TV channels got you an approximately accurate picture of the public debate.

Today there’s a potentially infinite number of sources that may be relevant or become relevant at some point during the crisis – established ones like Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and influential bloggers, but also Wikis or campaign platforms created especially for the case at hand. It requires a forward-looking radar system rather than a retrospective classical monitoring to detect negative discussions at an early stage, when the organization still has a chance to engage and be listened to. Tools like e.g. google alerts, digg.com, reddit.com or Technorati.com provide free search and alert options on specific topics. Netvibes.com serves as an aggregator of different sources. My own firm is currently launching Crisis Control Suite, a professional tool for managing this complexity in media and stakeholder relations, this September.

Transparency

To make things worse, in this hectic and complex environment it has become impossible to hide anything. In Germany, several high-ranking politicians were found guilty of having based their PhD grade thesis largely on plagiarism. The evidence did not come from scientific institutions, but from crowds gathering on a wiki, screening the papers sentence by sentence – and, ultimately, forcing the universities to withdraw the grade.

We’ve seen companies struggle following undercover placement of comments in online outlets – funnily, often companies engaged in internet-prone businesses. The CEO of We-Tab producer Neofonie got caught – by a blogger – in posting fake customer reviews of their own product; more recently, Facebook had to admit having hired Burson-Marsteller to place negative headlines about Google.

These guys, at least, should have known better: in the social web, transparency is the name of the game. If you’ve got something to hide, it will be discovered. So beware – or, even better, act accordingly.

Interaction

Social media, not least, enable direct interaction with individual stakeholders one by one. There’s plenty of examples where smart, adequate responses by brands to a consumer complaint on Facebook or Twitter turned critics into advocates. This new element seems to be disturbing to some long-served communicators longing for the old days when it was enough to know your handful of trusted journalists.

Yet it might be the most powerful option for corporations to drive a pro-active agenda even under crisis circumstances. Instead of an editorial filter, there’s the opportunity to deliver one’s own message directly to individuals, react to specific questions and concerns and hit the right tone for different types of conversations.

Some things never change

While social media provide a whole new set of challenges and opportunities, it should also be said that fundamentals of crisis communication management don’t change, especially when it comes to preparedness and strategy. You’ll still need to do your crisis mapping. It will still be your three-step response of showing empathy, dealing with the concrete impact of the crisis, and being transparent about it. And, of course, traditional mass media will continue to play a critical role in shaping public opinion. In fact, one could argue that, despite all the web whisper, a problem turns into a crisis once traditional mass media pick it up (then of course turning a lot of attention to the social media clutter as well).

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