The crisis communications plans of yesteryear are due for an addendum, and without it, you’re more at risk than ever before.
Most company leaders do not lie awake at night worried about the next publicity crisis that will come their way. Especially for smaller organizations, communications crises are things that happen to other people’s companies. And they spend their nights lying awake worrying about revenue, new products or services, competitors, talent challenges, etc. But the smart ones have enough foresight to have a contingency plan in place should a crisis emerge.
Not too long ago, it was enough to have a media relations policy and road map in place, for if a crisis were to be truly damaging to a company or its reputation, it would likely need to escalate to the level of “media-worthy” for enough eyeballs to see it or ears to hear about it.
No more. With the emergence of the social Web, everyone is a potential publisher. Anyone with a gripe can go public and do lasting damage to a brand’s rep—without the need to enlist the participation of the nightly news or the daily newspaper at all. What’s worse, if that individual does it well enough, and brings enough attention to their online beef, the traditional media will follow, and now you have two problems to contend with.
Consider the cases of United Breaks Guitars and T&J Towing (to name only two recent examples), which demonstrate that no company—regardless of size, breadth, reach, industry or audience—is immune to social backlash. And one needs little more than a reason and an Internet connection to unravel the reputation it took a company years to build.
Social media crises can take many forms, such as Twitter rants, derogatory or defamatory Facebook groups, “sucks sites” (like walmartsucks.com), blog posts or whole blogs devoted to a brand’s undoing, unwanted video releases (see: Domino’s), and so on.
The problem is that these renegades don’t necessarily need the traditional media to tell their stories anymore; they can go straight to the streets. And such tactics can fly under the radar for a time, and escalate to the point of no return before you even notice it’s happening.
The crisis communications plan of yore dealt with controlling the message…mitigating the damage:
1.) Define the message
2.) Appoint the spokesperson
3.) Route the media
4.) Maintain some level of control over the news story that ultimately hits
5.) Balance the opposition
Social media offers no such safety nets or cut-and-dried process maps. These rogue warriors are accountable to nobody, certainly not ethics or codes of conduct. They are beholden only to their own mission, and are fueled by attention like vampires crave blood.
So, if you’re smart, you already have your crisis-induced media relations plan in place. If you’re really forward-thinking, however, you have a social component to your plan. But if you’re like most companies, you don’t…so it’s time to get to work. Things to consider and include:
1.) Deputize your posse: Who is in charge of monitoring online conversations, social networks and forums for mentions of the incident or crisis? This can be a full-time job while the crisis is white hot, and it needs to be ongoing, even after the crisis seems to subside.
2.) Create the listening dashboard: You may be able to afford a fee-based service, but more likely you will need to create one on your own. This will house, in one location, RSS feeds pulling any possible keyword mention relevant to your crisis, and from all possible sources, including news, Twitter, blogs, forums, discussion boards, etc.
3.) Establish a reporting mechanism: The person(s) monitoring the feed will likely not be the company spokesperson or key decision maker. Establish a pulse for when and how information gets reported up and down the communications conduit. If something potentially damaging sprouts up, the appropriate people need to be notified in a timely manner.
4.) Preemptively prescribe the rules of engagement: Divide potential social mentions of your brand into categories—for example: positive mentions, neutral mentions with incorrect information, negative mentions by potential influencers, ostensibly isolated negative mentions (low influence), flamers/trolls, etc. Then define what the rules of engagement are for each subset of individual: Who responds to which category of mention, and how? You will want to have this clearly spelled out and in writing for all to know and adhere to, so you’re not making these decisions on the fly and based on intuition or emotion.
5.) Report and refine: After-action reports are paramount, and will help you gauge your ability to mitigate negative social publicity post-incident. Each interaction with a disgruntled party should be documented, detailing the nature of the engagement, the ongoing conversation, and the result. This data will be tremendously helpful in helping you to refine your process as circumstances warrant. Being nimble is especially crucial during a social crisis.
Most company executives are right to spend their nights worrying about things besides a publicity crisis, as they are rare. But when the crisis is yours, you’d better believe you’d wish you were prepared going in. Public fora online make it all the more critical to take another look at your crisis communications plan and make certain that it accounts for all contingencies—social media being at the forefront among them.