Crisis, what social PR and communication crisis? A rationale
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:
- Accept organizational responsibility early on for originating problems (and this includes not blaming others).
- 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.
- 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
“…. 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.”
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.