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The Truth about "Digital Crisis Communications"

Photo credit: are you my rik? FlickrRecent high profile online calamities experienced by notable brands are prompting discussion about the emergence of a new discipline: digital crisis communications. I understand that some people may believe the fundamental rules have shifted, thus necessitating a new approach to crisis planning and response. However, this is not the case. The fundamentals of crisis communications remain as relevant in an era of rapidly evolving media power structures as they have always been.
 
That said, I am realistic enough to expect that digital crisis communications will probably catch fire because it captures the current zeitgeist. Social media has reached the tipping point, so more problems will be reported and discussed through online tools such as TwitterYouTube, Facebook and whatever emerges in the next year to dethrone them. 
 
There will undoubtedly be all sorts of people who portray themselves as digital crisis communications experts because they have a blog, a Twitter account and believe they know more than everyone else about how the social media environment works. Just as every doofus with a Facebook page seems to think he's a social media expert, I fully expect a crowd of self-appointed digital crisis communications experts will clutter the speaking circuit during the coming year. 
 
Heck, I might as well add "digital crisis communications expert" to my bio right now and get a jump on them.
 
Of course, I don't believe the conventional wisdom that the emergence of social media has changed the rules of public relations either. The rise of social media and the diminishing power of mainstream media are instead returning PR to its roots. Instead of being publicity seeking flacks, PR pros are increasingly encouraging their organizations to emphasize relationships. But that's always been at the core of what we do. In Effective Public Relations, Cutlip, Center and Broom state that PR "establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and publics on whom its success or failure depends."
 
This isn't new, folks. The only thing that is changing is the way we connect and the speed that is necessary.
 
Now back to digital crisis communications. The fact is that it makes little difference how information about a crisis is disseminated and discussed -- the fundamentals still apply. Planning beforehand will often dictate whether you succeed. Effectively responding in a timely manner is essential. And learning from the experience to become better is critically important. Planning, response and recovery are the three fundamentals of crisis communications -- whether the crisis lives online or offline.
 
Many point to this month's Domino's issue as an example of a social media crisis. Actually, that would be a pretty good way to tell if your so-called digital crisis expert is legitimate or full of it. Domino's had a few bad days, but it was not a crisis by any stretch. Sure, they were embarrassed when employees posted disgusting videos online that showed them violating basic rules of food safety. It may have damaged the brand's reputation, but I suspect that long-term harm is doubtful. There was never any suggestion that patrons were sickened. There was never any suggestion that these dangerous employee behaviors were widespread. There was no evidence that anyone associated with the company tried to cover it up or lie about what happened.
 
Now, did Domino's effectively respond? They could have taken more visible action, but they chose not to. It wasn't that they didn't think about it. They did. In written correspondence with bloggers the day the videos were discovered, Domino's spokesman Tim McIntyre that they didn't want to make the matter worse than it was by calling attention to it. He was quoted by Advertising Age as saying disseminating a statement would be like, "putting out a candle with a fire hose."
 
In other words, they were aware of what was happening and, based on their assessment, had determined that the best course of action was to respond to queries individually.
 
It was naive and exhibited a lack of understanding of how quickly and broadly information spreads via social media. It showed that they were unaware that social media has an enormous influence on mainstream media coverage. Nonetheless, it was a legitimate strategy given what they knew at the time. Moreover, when Domino's saw that its strategy was failing, they changed course. And that killed the controversy virtually overnight.
 
Monday morning quarterbacks and digital crisis communications experts might look at it (in fact they do) as a crisis communications failure, but it was not. I wish every company that found itself in trouble had the insight to quickly see that the chosen strategy is not working and the guts to change course. The fact is that few do. Most companies adopt a bunker mentality and rely on their lawyers to respond. Others pick the wrong strategy and stick with it regardless of its effectiveness. Only a tiny percentage of companies do everything right from the start. They are the ones you probably never hear about.
 
The brutal truth of issues management and crisis communications is that those making decisions can see that there are no choices that are clearly right versus wrong. Instead, you quickly find yourself operating in a sea of gray in which every choice has possible upside and downside. Every choice is painful because it forces change, adds costs, creates new complexities or diminishes your organization's competitive position. There are no easy choices in a crisis. Somebody screwed up and everybody is going to have to shoulder part of the blame.
 
Responding to a crisis isn't fun. It isn't easy. It isn't for people who like to say, "I told you so." It is humbling. You quickly see what can go wrong even when great ideas are implemented. And you wake up the next morning with a greater appreciation for the struggles that those facing THAT day's crisis are having to endure.
 
So beware of these flavor-of-the-day digital crisis experts. The fundamentals of old-school crisis planning, response and recovery still apply. Those who claim otherwise are selling snake oil.
 
Photo credit: are you my rik? on Flickr.
Dan Keeney
(832) 467-2904
(214) 4432-7555
Author: Dan Keeney
Phone: (832) 467-2904
Fax: (214) 4432-7555
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