The Collision of Real-Time Communications and Crisis Management PR
In a recent post, I talked about the importance of developing a social media governance policy. Continuing down that path, I thought we should take this a step further and delve into what I think would be a deliverable within that policy -- a plan to handle a crisis situation through the monitoring and use of social media channels.
The importance of this couldn't be illustrated any more clearly than what we've watched unfold over the past month in two areas. The first being how social media has played a huge role in the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other parts of the Middle East. The second, the Charlie Sheen vs CBS saga, in which we've watched the demolition of one of television's most valuable franchises and the apparent personal unraveling of its star.
I think that everyone would classify these as crisis communications situations. Unanticipated events developed, and through social media, spread like out of control wildfires to audiences around the world, who not only watched, but also participated through social media. What has become clear is that in these situations the primary players no longer have control over the discourse. Events develop, evolve and even unravel in ways nobody could have imagined.
If someone had told of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt or Muammar Gaddafi of Libya two months ago that the self immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi would start a chain of events that led to overthrows of their governments, they never would have believed it. In the same vein, who at CBS or in Charlie Sheen's camp would have anticipated the suspension of CBS' most valuable series and the firing of its star just a few weeks ago? I firmly believe that had these situations developed even as short as five years ago, just before the dawning of Facebook and Twitter, the outcomes would be completely different.
So what do these things teach us? First, that individuals, governments and companies should never consider themselves immune to a crisis and the potential escalation of its impact through social media. So what is the answer? Expect that a crisis will someday come and put a plan in place today to manage it as best as you can. Here are a few things you should do to get yourself ready.
- If you don't already have a blog, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook channel in place, get one and get it fast.
- Start listening. See who is talking about you, your products or your customers. Assess their influence and reach out to them.
- Create a crisis communications team. Your head of communications should lead it. Representatives from human resources, sales, customer support, legal, investor relations and executive management should be on the team.
- Create a playbook. Set up a contact procedure and an issue escalation process for when it's necessary to convene the team.
- Identify potential types of crisis and rank their impact factors. For example, unhappy customers blogging about your products, interruptions in service, closing of offices and dismissal of employees, lawsuits filed by competitors or government agencies, and so forth.
- Assign primary spokespersons responsible for handling the issues.
- Respond quickly. Don't let things fester. Make a statement, even if it's as open ended as we're aware of the problem and are in touch with the parties involved and will get back to you with an answer as soon as as we can.
- Don't let the lawyers dictate everything. In crisis, there is a natural tendency to rely on their advice to minimize legal exposure. This is a wise thing to do, but not at the expense of saying nothing.
- Develop your position and communicate it through all the channels you have at your disposal -- web site, press release, blog, Twitter, Facebook, conference calls, and so on.
- Monitor the reactions, modify your message and respond as needed.
The key, in the end, is to be prepared and use all the communications channels at your disposal to engage in a dialog. Hopefully that way you won't be caught flat-footed and let others dictate all aspects of the conversation.