Mark Nusca is managing partner at independent Toronto based PR consultancy Relay Communications Inc. He was a journalist on the Canadian newspapers, the The Globe and Mail and National Post, and is now a communications strategist and media trainer. We’re delighted he has allowed us to share his post about crisis communications in the digital age.
Did anyone blow up the Internet today? Not yet? Stay tuned – just a matter of hours if not minutes before the next eruption of social media outrage and harrowing headlines inflict their toll on a major brand’s reputation and public trust.
The playing field for managing public relations disasters has transformed with dramatic speed since the advent of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and other rapid-fire global channels marking the digital age.
Beyond the unprecedented velocity and reach of news and information-sharing today, crisis risk factors have leaped beyond defective product recalls, accidents and fatalities, toxic spills and environmental issues. Brand-disaster risks now include crippling cyber attacks, mismanaged confidential customer data, employee sexual harassment, ruinous emails and disastrous text leaks.
Behold this year’s stunning communications train wreck involving Facebook’s delayed and inaccurate acknowledgement that consulting firm Cambridge Analytica improperly accessed data on millions of FB users back in 2014. FB’s belated admission claimed 50 million users were affected. But wait, no, make that 87 million users, FB later advised. Because hey, what’s 37 million accounts between friends? The resulting reputation damage and loss of public trust have been predictably catastrophic.
So the crisis-comms minefield has grown more complex and challenging. At the same time, however, today’s volatile ecosystem should prompt us to simply revise – rather than rewrite – the crisis playbook for a our wild, wired world. Proven fundamentals and best practices for effective crisis comms still apply, even as social media channels expand the tactics and context of issues management. That’s critical to remember when your marketing team or CEO are poised to jump into the fray as Twitter explodes with devastating malice.
Timing, action, transparency and empathy are still key guidelines for effective crisis management. Here’s a brief look at time-tested playbook essentials – tweaked for the Twittersphere and its chattering masses:
Speed is of the essence. Seems obvious but again – hello, Facebook. To delay acknowledging and responding to a problem, particularly as social media fury escalates, can rapidly decimate public trust and brand loyalty. Yet it’s a mistake too many firms continue to make. Whether a product recall, data breach, questionable ad campaign, employee scandal – customers, employees, suppliers, brand partners, the public and the media will expect an immediate response advising your awareness of the issue and appropriate action to solve it.
Use social media judiciously and strategically. Engage Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or You Tube as appropriate to communicate in a timely, ongoing manner. Online channels – compared to a live on-site media update, press conference or public townhall – can appear impersonal, rendering your messages less effective in controlling the narrative on exactly what happened and what you are doing about it. Social media can powerfully support your efforts but might not always be at the core of your initial comms response. Do you really want to communicate disastrous news affecting thousands of people with a few hundred Twitter characters?
Identify a primary spokesperson who’s front-and-centre with clear, consistent messages. The more senior the spokesperson the better, making the CEO ideal in conveying awareness, urgency, concern and engagement. After AirAsia’s 2014 crash killing 162 people, CEO Tony Fernandes took charge from the scene, providing live media access while delivering regular social media updates. His accessibility and tone went far during a nightmare scenario and even generated positive headlines for his engaged and sympathetic efforts.
Demonstrate integrity and empathy. Building on the previous point, accept responsibility, apologize for the error. Be as transparent as possible. A forthright tone and approach go far in preserving or restoring credibility and public trust. Again, Mr. Fernandes got it right with Tweets like these: “I, as your group CEO, will be there through these hard times. We will go through this terrible ordeal together,” and “We will be putting out another statement soon. Thank you for all your thoughts and prayers. We must stay strong.”
Deliver regular updates. Demonstrate that you are fully focused on managing the situation and the narrative. Provide ongoing media access for interviews. If you do not have a precise response to a query, explain why – for example, while confirming details before going public. Social media can help keep new information flowing far and wide, particularly to the media, who make up a large segment of the online landscape.
Inform, don’t debate. Never debate or offer negative commentary. Social media can be a bottomless pit of anger and misinformation, so deliver details, amplify messages but resist the impulse to join the conversation, as vitriolic as it can become. Twitter tends to be a confrontational medium at the best of times – don’t be lured into a debate that has no end but the potential to feed headline writers.
Tempted to turn the tables? Never blame the media while negative headlines hammer your brand. We saw what can happen after Chipotle Mexican Grill’s e-coli outbreak closed more than 40 outlets. CFO Jack Hartung thought it wise to accuse the media of writing “sensational headlines.” The result? A new wave of corrosive headlines, including this Bloomberg News classic: It’s Time for Chipotle to Eat Crow.
If you’d like some advice or support about crisis communications, please get in touch on 020 8332 6200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.