Crisis, what social PR and communication crisis? A rationale

Crisis communication and risks “managed” through social public relations and communication

Although the number of “gotcha” crises erupting on social, as well as stupidity of unthinking and unbridled employees appear to be lessening (likely as a result of formal social media policies and guidelines being instituted), it can’t be ignored that more and more companies, whether by choice or necessity, are including a “social” component into integrated communication efforts—mainly because social channels are where so many people head, often first, for information and opinions.

This first offering in my two-part post explores what constitutes a true crisis, including how it manifests in social and can be at least partially managed with thoughtful, long-term strategy to mitigate risks.

The new reality: a business must be social in its crisis communication

Damage control is harder and less effective when a business lacks a social presence, searchable social narrative and deliberate engagement plan. In the unfortunate event of a crisis that necessitates damage control related to an organization’s short- or long-time reputation (in particular, how much the official narrative is trusted), some business leaders worry whether a social media profile on various channels adds unwanted complications and a diversion of resources during a critical period.

The more pertinent questions to ask is whether it’s riskier not to have a social media presence or, alternatively, to hastily throw up a company blog, YouTube channel, Twitter profile or similar social media accounts at a time when dedicated staff time is better spent elsewhere.

In increasing numbers, various company stakeholders, publics and online ambulance chasers now search for a social media presence at the first hint of a perceived corporate crisis instead of relying on traditional media—particularly as many journalists from media outlets also will be conducting similar online searches for information and authoritative spokespeople. Or else go looking for former employees on sites such as LinkedIn who might be prevailed upon to “spill the beans.”

Social business related to reputation

Lack of a presence raises an electronic red flag in the mission to restore trust at the front end and pretty much guarantees a longer and more-complicated “crisis news cycle” in various media. The perception becomes, “If a business is afraid to be social, it must have something to hide.” Additionally, opinionating “citizen journalist” pundits—particularly those looking for their own “reputation” business opportunities, increased profile and mindshare—may speculate what’s behind the company being unsocial and offer up views (often unrelated to actual industry knowledge, proven facts or crisis communication experience) as to the reasons why.

The second instance of instituting social media channels after the “crisis” fact speaks to a reactive approach and a lack of a communication strategy related to departmental responsibility, primary intent of each channel, a content plan (to slowly build up relevant and useful information) and history of managed expectations of individuals (with various agendas), who choose to view the information and comment, opine or speculate on the origins of a crisis and its main participants.

Business leaders who want to assess the ROI of social media, not only in good times but in bad, should keep in mind that the Arthur W. Page Society estimates the intangible asset of reputation accounts for as much as 30 to 70 per cent of the gap between the book value and market capitalization of most companies.

As reputation is related to trust, heed this advice from the Masters of Disaster : The Ten Commandments of Damage Control (by Christopher Lehane, Mark Fabiani and Bill Guttentag):

“When you are in the throes of a crisis it is critical to remember:

It is not about winning the battle of the news cycle, it is about winning the war of the news story—and the war of the news story is won by rebuilding trust.”

Most of the benefits of becoming a social business are positive in nature and ripe with potential. But in the parlance of 21st-century damage control, increasingly it has become harder to win the war of a reputation news story without investing in strategic, long-term channels for social public relations and communication purposes.

Do no harm

A crisis relates to harm being done and having an impact on the well-being, livelihood or reputation of people, companies and things (e.g., the environment).

Generally the most severe business crises relate to an operational fail, such as:

  • listeriosis entering a food processing chain
  • oil erupting into the ocean and leaching into the soil or water supply
  • a nuclear plant malfunction
  • brakes in automobiles failing; and so on

There are also major human-error judgment fails, where the corporate culture and values are impacted (related to trust), such as sketchy financial institutional practices related to malfeasance or greed.

In these severe business crises scenarios, invested and authoritative social media channels can play a significant role in the integrated communication damage-control efforts, but it is rare social channels are the sole reason for the huge problems or errors leading to a true crisis.

Integrating social into crisis communication

Obviously organizations do not set out to have operational fails and cause harm, but when it comes to the value of investing in the more trusted and respected social media accounts and channels—whereby non-transactional information, decision-making and communal engagement is made more transparent—those same channels serve to minimize perceptions of, “It’s not the crime, it is the cover up,” simply because there is less evidence of subterfuge.

The opportunity exists to make use of social channels to:

  1. Accept organizational responsibility early on for originating problems (and this includes not blaming others).
  2. Be forthright about what is known or unknown, and what is being done to fix the problem and ensure it does not happen in the future.
  3. Accommodate core audiences and other interested individuals who want to receive information in this manner, including timeliness and amount of updates (beyond news releases).

Frequent, accurate and honest information updates (per the annual Edelman Trust Barometer) on appropriate social media channels (i.e., ones that haven’t been used solely for other objectives such as promotions and contests until this event—consider the company blog, dedicated LinkedIn Group, corporate Twitter and GooglePlus and/or YouTube accounts) are crucial in controlling damage and restoring trust. This is also why investing in non-marketing communication in social is a wise business decision and strategy, particularly before a crisis hits.

Although engagement on social platforms with non-stakeholders or journalists generally is not the best use of resources during a crisis (particularly in the middle of the night and often by younger or less-experienced employees who aren’t official spokespeople), the channels do serve as reliable monitoring or sentiment tools to aggregate the biggest concerns and outrage, misconceptions and speculations.

Monitoring because it matters

It’s not enough to just monitor social media; incorporate the social intelligence gleaned when modifying the communication strategy or formulating the key messages and information updates across the channels being used.

Acknowledge that your company listens to concerns and majority opinions do matter to the social business, now and in future.

This doesn’t mitigate the harm that is or will be done, but it does speak to corporate social sincerity in crisis management and resolution.

More recently it came to my attention that activist sites and use of hashtags (particularly on Twitter) are areas where more time should be spent on monitoring prevailing sentiment and its impact—if any—on business and leadership reputation(s).

Social innovation in crisis communication

Organizations can also be proactive and innovative in the use of social media for crisis management.

Michael McCain, CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, is widely credited with being the first business leader to make use of YouTube to issue a fast and heartfelt apology about the company’s listeriosis crisis that killed and made ill a significant number of Canadians, against the advice of his corporate lawyers. (I’ve written here about the CPRS webinar I organized that provided gave a unique opportunity to hear from the inside how the communication department thought and worked during its company crisis.)

During the webinar, registrants learned from the senior communicator that McCain used YouTube because it could be uploaded faster than public service announcements for traditional media could be contracted and broadcast. Besides the early-on video apology, McCain detailed “what is known, unknown and what is being done to fix the problem and ensure it doesn’t happen in future.”

This has become a common crisis management/damage control strategy, used in business schools around the world as a best practice case study. The difference between the McCain apology and later uses by CEOs is the severity of its crisis and the sincerity of Maple Leaf Foods in wanting to correct the harm the company unintentionally did. In future, McCain promised Maple Leaf Foods would become a world-leader in ensuring food safety.

McCain and Maple Leaf Foods’ corporate communication department made it clear that actions were motivated by doing the right thing, rather than to be lauded for its crisis communication efforts. It’s worth noting that employees were considered core stakeholders/audiences and kept in the crisis communication information loop. This was relatively easy to accommodate, as internal communication was always a priority at Maple Leaf Foods. Employees were deeply impacted by the fact that a product produced by the company killed and made ill so many people, so they supported efforts to do the right thing.

Corporate character relates to ongoing reputation

I devoted a (social public relations) monthly column to the two-minute “IBM on Brand” video featuring Jon Iwata, where he distilled the company’s corporate character:

“…. So if we are not going to define IBM by what we make, what defines us? And it comes back to this notion of our corporate character, and that’s our beliefs systems and our purpose and our mission and what makes us, us.

We tend to that…the brand takes care of itself.

Once we have a sense of what makes us, us, it actually is quite clarifying. It also compels us to keep changing…while making sure we don’t change things that should never change and that must endure.”

(I also featured the video and Iwata in my PRSA submission for Ethics Month.)

Think about it: Does any corporate crisis unique to IBM come to mind, above and beyond the need to be agile and mindful regarding an ongoing licence to operate, marketplace opportunities/challenges and competition? (I’m aware of the negative feedback to changes to its USA-based 401(k) contributions policy, whereby IBM matches employee savings just once a year rather than throughout the year. But this type of financial decision or solution to maximize shareholder value isn’t unique to IBM, so in my mind it isn’t a crisis. For example, numerous Canadian companies are also moving to get out of the wholly funded employee-pension business.)

In its present incarnation, IBM is a global leader when it comes to not only incorporating, but innovating, social into its integrated communication and company narrative and fabric, both internally and externally. Should a crisis arise it is well-situated to handle it in as transparent and expedient a manner as possible in social.

And IBM isn’t the sole example. Perhaps readers can point to other companies, particularly in other countries, who mitigate risks in a similar way, through ongoing demonstrations of deliberate and thoughtful corporate character. Or companies like Maple Leaf Foods, who made the best of a terrible situation in how a crisis was handled and made judgment calls on how to do the right thing, including through social.

In part two of this post I examine causes of some actual social media crises—almost always the result of fallible, human actions—and how to mitigate those same risks in your own “social” business.

Danger ahead image from the Free Funny Images site.

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15 Replies to “Crisis, what social PR and communication crisis? A rationale

  1. Dear Judy,

    This is such a comprehensive analysis of how crises can be managed (or rather should and shouldn’t be managed) through the use of social media. What you have expressed in relation to social media, particularly the fact that once a crisis has emerged it is the already established image on social media that works for or against you, is true of every action taken by an organisation. Once you have a well-established relationship with a stakeholder, that allows you, as a business to have the prevalent voice before the ones of journalists come through to paint a picture, you’re in a better position to save your reputation.

    A well-established social media presence, as you mentioned, through regular and relevant postings will perhaps guarantee that, at the first sign of a crisis emerging, public will turn towards social media to see your statement as a brand. The downside of that is that unless your poignant declaration is there for people to see within seconds, your friends will become your enemies. As with any other situation, this is a double-edged sword, but it is arguably much better to be in the position to be able to have your voice heard and hope you won’t miss your chance to do so, than missing out on that ability altogether.

    Once again, this post really resonated with views I’ve been holding for a long time, which is always the case.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Andreea. I’m glad my post resonated with you.

      Indeed, I think social media is increasingly becoming a necessary part of a “communication strategy related to departmental responsibility, primary intent of each channel, a content plan (to slowly build up relevant and useful information) and history of managed expectations of individuals (with various agendas), who choose to view the information and comment, opine or speculate on the origins of a crisis and its main participants.”

      But I would caution you to remember that an organization’s reputation or relationship with stakeholders and publics isn’t solely dependent upon its social media presence. It’s the overall corporate culture and values, relationships and history, through various communication channels, including phone and face-to-face for that matter.

      I think being trusted in social helps to articulate the official point of view around an event or crisis, but that only addresses the needs and wants of stakeholders and publics who chose to get information and inform an opinion through social channels.

      Others—think shareholders, financial institutions, governments, policing bodies, the courts and even the majority of journalists—are likely demanding information in other formats and channels.

      As I argued in my Extraction Byte, the key is figuring out which of the most important stakeholders look to social for information and fulfill their needs, first and foremost—including which channels. Wholly owned media such as a corporate website or blog, or a short information Twitter account, likely have more authority than Facebook or a platform like Pinterest.

      And the reputation and trust is as good as how the last piece of crisis communication is received. If there is an appearance of dissembling or stalling with the truth, all of the good work done previously in social media can be undone.

      Crisis communication tests the mettle of public relations practitioners. Here’s hoping you never need to be tested in this fashion.

      Maybe it relates to my age, but I’m actually quite skeptical about the long-term impact, let alone short-term influence of a brand champion going sideways. The numbers usually don’t bear out—as detailed in a number of posts by Augie Ray—that threatened boycotts, etc., actually happen or have that much financial impact. Particularly if it’s a core service industry—the ones that are often the most reviled or slammed for their social media crises. Think of the telecom companies, airlines, banks, etc.

      And I think the extent and heartfelt-ness of an “apology” should fit the actual “crime.” A single ill-thought-out tweet hardly a crisis makes. Likely the apology can be done in around 140-characters and the corporate reputation remains basically intact.

  2. Judy – thank you for revisiting crisis and social here (the link to your post: is worth the detour).

    On that original post, I made some observations about the pre-occupation on major/strategic crisis situations which I do not think are as common as the PR literature/chatter will have us believe. Yes, one can find examples most weeks, but spread those across the number of businesses and PR practitioners and few of either really experience survival or reputation critical situations.

    The use of social media (or being a social business) when handling more minor incidents or issues, requires a more nuanced approach I feel, it is more akin to having a toolkit and the ability to know when to advise different responses that I feel PR practitioners need today rather than relying on a rulebook or examples of previous cases (which are undoubtedly specific to a time, place and organisational/cultural context).

    Similarly, I think that arguing every business needs to be social needs some caveats, especially in the face of the “jump in and communicate openly with everyone continuously” mantra we often hear. There are certainly times when using social channels is appropriate and necessary. But there are times when it is not. Often the advice is best to get the problem fixed, prove and tell people it is fixed, then shut up and get on with the day job… I have also heard fairly often recently the ‘no comment’ approach being used to kill emerging crisis situations quite effectively.

    I suppose to use a fire-fighting analogy, it is about knowing about the type of fire, its cause and the best way to handle that particular situation (in relation to environmental and other conditions). That may well mean that opening the windows of social media simply creates a backdraft from the oxygen of publicity or a flashover of rapid escalation. In which case, rather than being a positive crisis management strategy, the social business approach can make things much worse.

    1. Thanks for weighing, Heather. I will attempt to address the various areas you commented upon.

      My third (of 24) columns you reference, Crisis Byte: An Online Shark Attack or Fishy Little Nibbles? was written, in part, because of my own frustration about how so many things in the social media realm were being deemed as crises when, in fact, as you point out here very few warranted that term and relatively few companies and practitioners have need to address them on either a monthly let alone annual basis.

      It was almost a year later that I published Binary Byte: Shading Your Online PR; Managing Black and White Imperatives, where I quoted from Augie Ray’s independent yet complementary post, Social Media Crises Aren’t Crises. If you read it you’ll see that Augie (who has become a great “analyst” colleague and valued, equally pragmatic friend) thinks that most of these things should be deemed “events”:

      We should stop using the term “Social Media Crisis”: Merriam-Webster defines crisis as a crucial time with “the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome.” Social media “crises” are simply not resulting in “highly undesirable outcomes,” at least as measured by important financial measures. Our use of the term “crisis” does not reflect well on our profession; it connotes panic when what we need to convey is assurance and capability. I have begun to change my language, using the word “event” instead of “crisis” or “disaster.” An event is something we handle; a crisis is something we suffer. An event is something that can be planned for and prevented; a disaster is something we are powerless to foresee or affect.”

      Two later columns focused on social media and crises (all three are linked to in this post), Extraction Byte: Mining Social PR Elements from the Masters of Disaster Commandments, January 2013, focusing on the tremendous Masters of Disaster book resource (which is the biggest influence on this post in terms of strategy—the Maple Leaf Foods video even received an approving nod from the American authors) and, more recently the July 2013 Reputation Byte: Three Taxing Areas Beyond Control in Social PR.

      Obviously when recruited to write a column on “social public relations” that is where you are going to focus the majority of your time. But in almost ever column I wrote I emphasized that social is simply one area of integrated communication. It is not—nor should it be—the sole communication medium (in all of its social platform manifestations, wholly owned or third-party) or a silver bullet for success in anything, whether it be crisis communication or regular business information and relationship building.

      Compared to many who write about social, I believe I am one of the more pragmatic public relations contributors. Augie is my marketing twin in this respect.

      Regarding your, “Similarly, I think that arguing every business needs to be social needs some caveats…” is a little unclear to me. If you are arguing that not every business needs to have at least one or two social media accounts, it reminds me of 15 or so years ago when some wondered whether every business needed to have a website. And it is getting to the point where if someone who works in the various communication disciplines—public relations, internal comms, marketing, advertising, etc.—does not have at least a LinkedIn profile and maybe a Twitter account, it seems quite odd. I think that is simply the reality. From a company perspective, I wrote a column about this called Access Byte.

      And I also think the fact that traditional media have jumped big time on the social media bandwagon demonstrates that a social media presence has become more of a necessity than a luxury for both the outlets and journalists.

      I look at my 24 columns as a body of work for reference. I have advocated (in Nutrition Byte) for carefully/deliberately selecting the channels where public relations/corporate communication spends its resources. And to leave other accounts (e.g., Facebook) to the marketing function for its contests and promotions, etc. Other accounts may be better suited to hand-on customer service. Or recruitment. Or in the case of B2B, for social sales. And so on.

      And if you give a more thorough read to my Extraction Byte, I certainly don’t advocate spending precious crisis communication/damage control time on every fly-by opinionater who jumps on a company’s Facebook account for the first time to add to the pile-on of a perceived crisis. Often anonymously.

      This first post on PRC relates primarily to integrating social channels into a true crisis for strategic and effective communication purposes. I believe this is the new reality: the old rule books don’t always apply—if, in fact, they could ever be used for a cookie-cutter approach.

      I’ll give you an example of changing information consumption habits. Recently I asked a Gen Y individual who works for one of the bigger, better-known/respected social media monitoring companies for brands as to whether he had listened to A Brand New World. My thought was that his company and he would find it quite interesting and useful for business purposes. He informed me, quite cheerfully and cheekily that he hadn’t listened to any public radio shows in years; he gets all of his information and news via social media channels. But do this company’s clients also shun the public broadcaster as a reliable indicator of changing norms in favour of “influential” bloggers?!

      Are some practitioners really going the “no comment” route? It seems counter-productive. Wouldn’t it be better to say “We have no further information at this stage but will update you as soon as possible?” I remember my personal misery the time my name appeared in The Globe and Mail with a “no comment.” I had counselled repeatedly for the CEO to comment as requested—because it was actually something quite innovative and definitely not illegal or untoward and I believe the organization would have been lauded for its cleverness re: a lobbying effort—but my arguments were denied. Three times. I provided all kind of alternative, related background information to the journalist, but as it wasn’t what she wanted to see or hear, she characterized me as silent. And note that this wasn’t something that was considered a crisis.

      Although I participate in (and write about) the intersection of public relations and social media more frequently than you do, I believe our core beliefs about and approaches to crisis communication are generally quite similar, whether online or off.

      I look forward to your thoughts about part two.

  3. Very interesting approach Judy.
    Have you definitely decided for the ‘social business’ term?

    I ask this because I believe there is a risk of confusion.. as social business is more appropriately used in the management and business communities to indicate a particular form of social entrepreneurship: businesses that offer products and services aimed at solving, addressing social issues; businesses who attract financial resources from the market, pay back the investments received… but do not distribute dividends that are instead reinvested in the business itself. They do not rely on fundraising.

    I believe, and am anxious to read your second part, that you are proceeding towards a paradigmatic re elaboration of the traditional organization crisis management approach, and it would be a pity if the arguments were weakened by a confusion over terminology.

    Cheers and thank you

    1. Toni – you pick up on a point that has concerned me for a while (sorry Judy for the side-step here) in relation to social marketing which has become muddled for the same reason you mention.

      I have taken to using the term societal instead of social to be clear about the types of business you identify and the the form of marketing which is directed at achieving ‘social good’ (

      It is too confusing to sit with people in meetings who see social marketing and social enterprise/business about online dialogic communications or community building when I am using the terms for a different meaning.

      So I’ve abandoned ‘social’ in favour of societal…

    2. Toni, to be honest I’ve never heard the “social business” terminology reflected in the way you described it. Is it possible it’s a more European terminology? From the way you describe it, it does seem more like corporate social responsibility. Or 19th century “philanthropic” business endeavours.

      I can understand your disappointment, but I’d (gently) like to suggest that language usage is evolutionary in nature, so today’s most predominant usage of “social business” (effective the last two or three years) relates to a company whose integrated communication (and marketing and sales and customer service, etc.) increasingly includes social media platforms and practices.

      You may recall that my definition for “social public relations” is: Relating the inside out…and by extension the outside in.

      Dave Gray said he deliberately chose the term “connected company” (over social business), because he wanted to reflect the human dynamics inherent in this kind of agility and deliberate mindset.

      I’m sorry to have made you anxious. My posts are simply my observations and opinions on 21st-century crisis communication, so I’m not sure any debate over the terminology of “social business” would really impact the paradigm or elaboration of organizational crisis communication approaches–although it’s flattering that you think so.

      As always, thanks for your interest and comment.

      1. Judy – Wikipedia has ‘social business’ defined as Toni is using it. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Prof. Muhammad Yunus is credited with the concept as a “new kind of capitalism that serves humanity’s most pressing needs”. This is not CSR or philanthropy – ie not additional social activities carried out by businesses, nor ensuring the operations of businesses have a social responsibility. These are self-sustaining organisations (ie they generate profits that are used for social good)

        There is an associated term: social enterprise, which relates to the commercial activities of charities for example.

        It is interesting that this discussion has come up here as it has a relation to the Dissent PR post in respect of the critique there that dissent/protest/activism needs to challenge, not simple conform to, the existing capitalist model. Social businesses – as defined this way rather than how you are familiar with the term – would seem to be entirely within the existing system.

        1. Heather (and Toni),

          I DO appreciate that “social business” may have a long history and different connotation than how I used it here…but on the other hand (just like what happened with my PRSA #PREthics submission), the focus of this (two-part) post is on integrating “social [media]” components into integrated “crisis communication” strategies and tactics, and I feel like the comments are veering off track of that intent.

          Ergo, I’d rather comments relate to whether you buy my arguments or not about social/online crisis communication, rather than focus on the historical or (still) correct definition of “social business” per Wikipedia.

          I wrote a column for two years on “social public relations” on a site called Maximize Social Business, where you both commented quite often (thank you), but never once did either of you raise the concern about the usage of “Social Business.”

          So why is it coming up now?

  4. I enjoyed this post Judy, lots of it resonated. Echo your point about ensuring the appropriate social media channels are used (plus offline for employees – I’ve implemented ‘crisis comms lines’ with recorded information in various workplaces in order to provide consistent information).

    Glassdoor is another website that has huge potential for employees, both current and former to be contacted via.

    As I was reading through your comments about the Maple Leaf Foods video, which is a great example, I was reminded of a video I saw a little while ago of Lieutenant General David Morrison of the Australian Army. He used YouTube to directly address the public following a crisis. It’s three minutes long and worth a watch. No doubting his sincerity, it’s powerful stuff:

    I look forward to reading part two,

    1. Thanks for your comment and shares, Rachel. I did go watch the (Aussie) Lieutenant General David Morrison video and it fits in nicely with my Part II post. Do you have a URL for Glassdoor? I’d be interested in checking out the site. (Is it in the UK?)

      Definitely crisis communication from an employee perspective is going to be primarily “offline.” Same with most business communication, in fact. I’m glad to hear that you help your clients figure out the most-effective ways to “communicate” with the internal staff. Recorded information is a great idea, particularly as I’m such a huge fan of radio/audio. There’s something about the human voice–Marshall McLuhan declared audio a “hot” medium.

      I’ve been a bit under the weather this week, so I’m still writing part two. But you can look forward to reading it early next week.

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