The Public Relations Strategist

External Issue Response in a Hypersensitive, Hypersocial World

October 26, 2017

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[getty images]

By Amy Davis and Matt Kucharski

As companies and brands seek to expand their relationships with customers, employees, partners and communities, more and more are looking outside their virtual walls to understand and respond to external events in a way that’s relevant to their key stakeholders. 

Whether it’s a humanitarian response to natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma, a reaction to socially significant policy positions or the desire to show support for those affected by violence at home or abroad, how a company acts and communicates during these critical times matters more than ever.

But it can be hard to predict what type of response is appropriate, especially when trying to engage with a wide range of stakeholders on a regular basis.

Take the death of Prince. General Mills was roundly criticized for its purple “Rest in Peace” tweet, with a Cheerio dotting the “I,” and had to take the post down a few hours later. Another Minnesota-based company, 3M, altered its logo using purple and a stylized tear, and while it received some criticism, it also garnered praise from employees. And arguably one of the most commercialized responses — full-page ads by General Motors featuring a red Corvette and the headline “Baby, That Was Much Too Fast” — received almost no criticism at all and was, in fact, held up by many as highly appropriate and clever. 

This even can happen during seemingly lighthearted moments. When Beyoncé came out with her Ivy Park line of activewear, one Twitter follower questioned the similarity to Lululemon.

Lululemon’s social media team responded suggesting that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery but found out quickly that you don’t mess with the “Beyhive” and had to pull the post two hours later — unfortunately, not before catching the attention of Cosmopolitan, “E! News” and US Weekly, who all did stories about the “controversy.”

Then, of course, there are companies that find themselves in the crosshairs on a moment’s notice.  This was certainly the case with Boeing and Lockheed, who needed to defend their government contracts after a series of tweets from the president-elect. And sometimes companies consciously bring on the controversy themselves, as was the case when executives from companies like Apple, Google, GE, Tesla, Salesforce and numerous others came out strongly against the U.S. pullout from the Paris Accords. 

Suffice it to say we’re faced with a new landscape — one with hypersensitive individuals who live in a hypersocial world where an issue can become a crisis in a hyperfast time frame.

The changing landscape

A number of factors have come together to form this new landscape. There is, of course, the shifting media environment. Informal influencers can carry as much weight — or at least garner as much visibility — as traditional media outlets. The “Today” show may have roughly 4 million daily viewers, but Kim Kardashian has more than 55 million Twitter followers.

Much to the chagrin of purists, the classification of what is considered a “journalist” is evolving as well. Forbes.com has more “contributors” now than it does actual staffers on its payroll. David Pogue, one of the top technology journalists in the country, used to write for The New York Times, but now produces content for Yahoo Tech, CBS News “Sunday Morning” and Scientific American, in addition to hosting a show on PBS’s “NOVA.” And he has nearly 1.8 million Twitter followers. So if you’re putting together your media relations strategy, do you target The New York Times or Yahoo Tech, or do you simply pitch David Pogue regardless of the outlet?

The proliferation of news sources out there makes it challenging for even the most informed consumer — and makes it hard to distinguish among true reporting, commentary and point-in-time observation. That means that anybody with a phone and an internet connection can call themselves a journalist. Just ask United Airlines.

And propagation of the news is happening at hyper-speeds. Facts about a story or issue become clearer with time, but our desire for “snackable content” means we often get the information when we need it, but don’t come back to see if what we learned is still true. If someone reads an initial report and doesn’t follow the story for days, then they will likely have an incomplete and even inaccurate view because they won’t have a full understanding of the facts that have been uncovered during the time span.

Combine that “news on demand” with “the news I want,” and you have a pretty challenging combination. If you’re a horse lover who happens to enjoy Broadway musicals and leans Democrat, it’s likely that your Google news feed will only serve up information on these topics and nothing more. The upside is customization, but the downside is tribalism — where we only relate to information from people who think and act like us, and we distrust the rest.

Native advertising and branded journalism have their detractors, and new Federal Trade Commission regulations have tightened the reins on what is considered advertising. But there’s no doubt that major media organizations have taken notice. Even Marty Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, noted that he sees “… a future when all news outlets will have two newsrooms, one for hard news and one for sponsored content on behalf of brands.”

Taken to the extreme, this is where “fake news” has taken root, and it has people confused.  According to the Pew Research Center, only 39 percent of Americans are confident in their ability to recognize fake news, and one in four have acknowledged sharing fake news with others. It’s not going away anytime soon.

The new normal

What’s a strategic communicator supposed to do in an environment where pretty much every gesture, no matter how noble, has its detractors; there’s an inherent lack of trust in institutions like media, corporations and government entities; and it’s getting harder to believe information people do receive? Here is some guidance for responding to external issues in this hypersensitive, hypersocial world.

  1. Steward your corporate values. Never has it been more important for strategic communicators to be the stewards of the organization’s values. They drive how you act, and they drive how you engage with your key stakeholders. They need to be defined, shared and regularly reinforced.
  2. Be vigilant. We sometimes forget that one of the most important roles we play is listening on behalf of our organizations. Go beyond Google Alerts and get your hands dirty with the data and analytics from your digital and social teams. Find out what people are saying about the issues and about you. After all, you can’t shape the conversation if you’re not actually in the room.
  3. Assess before you respond. While every situation is different, there are processes you can put in place to ensure you’re not constantly putting out fires or shooting from the hip. Mayo Clinic, after being faced with a rapid-fire succession of social issues — from the travel ban to the Orlando nightclub shootings — established a simple “scorecard” assessment tool to “rate” each issue based on a specific set of weighted criteria. It isn’t intended to remove judgment from the equation, but it allows the Mayo crisis and issues management team to work from a standardized playbook.
  4. Consider all audiences and use all available tools. This isn’t just about your external reputation — it’s about your workplace. In fact, our informal survey of colleagues indicates that the single most important audience when responding to a social issue is your own employees. In addition, actions drive communication, and nobody ever said that the only way to communicate is through the media. There’s never been a more important time to leverage all available communications channels including earned, paid, social, digital and face-to-face methods. 


We’re in a new normal — one where companies and brands need to consider how to engage with external social events in a hypersensitive, hypersocial, hyper-responsive world. Strategic communicators who act as stewards of corporate values, who listen on behalf of their organizations, who establish assessment tools for responding and who think beyond single-channel communications will be in a much better position to help their organizations build, grow and protect their brands and reputations. 


Amy Davis serves as division chair of communications for Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit medical organization providing serious and complex care across its campuses in Minnesota, Arizona and Florida. Davis provides oversight to Mayo Clinic’s national media relations, owned and social media, crisis communications and issues management, staff engagement communications and client communications activities.
 
Matt Kucharski is president at Padilla, a strategic communications firm that builds, grows and protects brands and reputations, with offices in seven cities across the United States and global reach through its partnership in the Worldcom Public Relations Group. 
 
 

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