Manage vulnerability in the midst of online crises

June 28, 2011

Aflac fired “spokesduck” Gilbert Gottfried over his comments about the Japanese tsunami. GoDaddy CEO Bob Parsons documented an elephant hunt that angered PETA.  An Applebee’s restaurant in Michigan accidentally served alcohol to a toddler.

These recent headlines illustrate how crisis topics very often vary. However, there is a common mindset that PR practitioners can apply to help manage and minimize the online footprint of such incidents.

“People often go off the cuff in a crisis and that’s their No. 1 flaw,” says Jocelyn Broder, vice president at Robin Tracy Public Relations in Atlanta, describing how a client who was upset about a negative blog post opted against her counsel and contacted the blogger personally.

That exchange resulted in another post by the same blogger casting more negative light on the spokesperson’s  “claims” and five other bloggers picked up the story.

“The original post, while unflattering, was accurate and directed at maybe a couple hundred readers,” explains Broder.  “In relatively contained situations like these it is good to have a statement prepared in case you are contacted, but proactively offering it may cause more damage than would’ve likely occurred.”

Dorothy Crenshaw, CEO of Crenshaw Communications in New York, says the first rule in the crisis response playbook is being timely and authentic — often to issue an apology — but the realities of the accelerated news cycle can require deft interpretation and application of this rule.

“Parsons’ GoDaddy hunting video was posted for some time before going viral and since he didn’t believe he was doing anything wrong, the company needed a different response,” adds Crenshaw. “Knowing he’s a hunter and ex-Marine who makes no bones about his lifestyle suggests GoDaddy’s team is prepared to some degree for negative news.”

Parsons’ explanations about helping poor African villagers control the elephant population and preserve crops, however, came across as defensive to many viewers, including Crenshaw.  She thought that he did an admirable job of making himself available for response but could have communicated a more sincere desire to help the region reduce poverty.

Preparing your response

The digital communications landscape requires more frequent vulnerability assessment so that practitioners can better help companies and clients manage potential and real crises scenarios. Successful communicators apply the following:

  • Study the past — Companies generally find themselves in situations that they (or someone like them) have been in before. Studying how peers handled past mistakes aids crisis readiness.
  • Anticipate the future — Crenshaw suggests vulnerability assessments that generate responses for your top five most likely crisis scenarios. Broder advises identifying team members who are automatically contacted no matter where or when a crisis occurs.  The sooner they are engaged, the sooner they can determine how to respond.
  • Mend while you trend — Broder also recommends measuring the actual reach of a crisis by evaluating everywhere it occurs online.  This helps determine who else may become aware of it, which messages should be prepared — if any — and what message frequency is best for quelling rather than exacerbating the news.

Apply a rational rather than an emotional examination to whether news requires a response.  It is also wise to identify one spokesperson whose position is commensurate with the situation to respond when necessary.

“If you don’t have a thoughtful and strategic response within the first four hours, then you generally lose round one,” says Crenshaw.  “And sometimes, it’s only a one-round battle.

Ryan Zuk, APR

Ryan Zuk, APR, is a media and analyst relations professional, Phoenix PRSA Chapter member and Sage North America representative. Zuk can be reached @ryanzuk on Twitter. He also blogs at criticalmasspr.com.

Email: ryanzuk at gmail dot com


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