Is your crisis communications plan anti-social?

April 1, 2010

Chief financial officers have dealt with auditors since the days of the abacus. Smart chief technology officers bring in friendly hackers to test the ability of firewalls to withstand cyber attacks. Facilities managers conduct evacuation drills.

However, aside from airlines and a few industries susceptible to high-profile incidents, it is rare to see mandated, periodic reviews of a company’s crisis communications plan.

Update with care
For organizations that have a mandatory annual review of their crisis communications plan, the task may be relegated to a junior staffer who lacks the skill or authority to make major changes. This is a mistake.

A rubber-stamp process that simply updates staff phone trees and media lists is dangerous because many of a company’s newest communications channels and techniques to reach stakeholders could be missing from a legacy crisis plan.

Many PR professionals used 2009 to experiment with social media, speaking with influential audiences directly rather than through one-way messaging with the help of mainstream media gatekeepers. The numbers told the story: As Facebook surged past 350 million unique users, a record number of daily newspapers folded in 2009, plagued by a deepening recession and debt.

As organizations of all sizes began building social media communities, their dalliance was often short-lived and lacked scale. Other organizations have proven that they are worthwhile enough to earmark significant marketing dollars.

Any 2010 crisis communications planning needs to consider an organization’s new social channels — whether on internal networks like Jive Software and Yammer or externally via platforms such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

Learn from others’ crises
Following the devastating January earthquake in Haiti, communicators who used social media channels not only reached customers and brand loyalists, but also reached influential mainstream media. For instance, when American Express waived fees for merchants accepting earthquake-assistance donations, the company found that their tweets quickly made their way in news coverage.

Pleas for doctors and nurses to help in Haiti also spawned rumors that American Airlines and JetBlue Airways were flying medical personnel to the ravaged nation. Within minutes, the @jetBlue Twitter feed, which has attracted an astonishing 1.5 million followers, dispelled the misinformation and directed would-be volunteers to an organization that validates credentials of nurses and doctors willing to help.

Of course, the nature of social media is that everyone is a publisher. Because consumers can generate content that is sometimes incorrect — or, worse yet, deliberately disparaging — organizations that embrace social media must be extra vigilant.

If left unchecked, third-party postings and comments on the wall of a brand’s Facebook fan page can spread rapidly and become amplified by a social media influencer or a mainstream outlet. The damage can be immediate and profound.

Use your own channels
Brands that are proficient in distributing their own content — from simple tweets to polished thought-leadership white papers, webinars and videos — should ensure that their fans and followers know about critical news as it happens. Waiting hours or days to comment leaves room for rumor mongering and speculating.

As we’ve learned from mature social media programs, like the one run by Ford Motor Company’s Scott Monty, the crowd generally accepts that instant answers are not always available during a crisis. Monty and his staff have earned respect from fans and followers by promptly replying, even if the Ford response is something as innocuous as, “I just read your tweet and am looking into the situation.”  

For fans, just knowing that someone is on duty and moderating the channel may be enough to calm the frayed nerves of an angry consumer.

But being awake and in touch via social media channels is not enough to keep a corporate reputation intact while under siege. It’s one thing to promise a reply and something quite different if no one in senior management is willing to go on the record in social media, just like in mainstream print and broadcast. An organization’s social media team should have access to senior communications executives to address the issues of those making noise online. Common sense should dictate whether to do this outreach publicly or privately. 

Tone down commercial content
On Sept. 11, 2001, my office window in New York overlooked the flashy billboards in Times Square. The brands advertising their wares in lights just two miles north of the World Trade Center should have been unplugged immediately. In reality, it took a day or two for most of the signs to go dark or for advertisers to replace them with appropriate messages of sorrow, charity or patriotism.

Just as airlines have long enforced a policy to immediately pull their ads from TV and print after any major crash involving a passenger plane, brands using new media must have a kill switch built into their crisis plans.

It was hurtful to see animated beer ads on Broadway on Sept. 12, 2001. As crisis communications plans are created and updated, it’s critical to remember the many consumer touch points between a brand and its publics: the Web site, ad campaigns, events and pre-scheduled company announcements unrelated to the crisis.

Stay aware, active
While I don’t know of a magical solution that lets a company’s entire marketing program instantly switch off, there are powerful tools to prevent gaffes within the most widely used social networks. Among the features that apply to crisis situations:

  • Moderation consoles that capture posts and comments, matching them against “black lists” of words and phrases that an organization may not want on its Facebook wall. These tools also display comments made to pages that are only weeks or months old, eliminating the possibility of disparaging content being buried deep within a fan page. An “escalation” feature allows questions posed by fans to be e-mailed to experts for faster responses.
  •  Page management tools to schedule the publication of content in advance. Some crisis scenarios can be anticipated, so approved responses can be loaded into the tool for faster responses. These tools also let administrators suspend campaigns without the intervention of third-party vendors.
  •  Self-service application dashboards allow organizations to publish customized content quickly for their Facebook page. Using these tools, a company, agency or nonprofit could quickly move from a sales-oriented page to one that distributes information about an incident or engages fans to support benevolent nonprofits.
  • Many of today’s consumers gather information in real time. This can lead to big rewards for organizations that learn to behave like media companies, attracting an audience and then earning trust by communicating continuously through the good times as well as the bad.

Copyright © 2010 PRSA. All rights reserved.

Dave Armon
Dave Armon is vice president of strategic accounts at Context Optional in New York. He spent 20 years counseling clients on crisis communications issues at PR Newswire, where he served as president and COO.


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