When a crisis occurs, how can we communicate in today’s instant world?
When Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic crashed, he immediately announced it on Twitter, and apologized in a news briefing thus getting in front of the story. On the other hand, Brian Williams’ exaggerated chopper story began on Facebook when someone on the actual chopper said Williams wasn’t on board. (So much for those who think they can hide bad news.) In either case, the stories spread swiftly through different channels soon after.
Branson’s response followed the basic rules of crisis management:
- Get bad news out fast,
- Don’t lie,
- Acknowledge the problem,
- Provide ongoing information and
- Show sincere sympathy for those affected.
His initial use of Twitter was followed by postings on social media and mainstream channels. By quickly releasing content across the widest social platforms, he became the best source for news.
How can you stay ahead of a story?
Crisis management is not an exact science. There aren’t hard and fast rules for releasing information. However, an initial response usually depends upon where a story breaks. Meaning, wherever a post first appears is where it has to be quickly addressed. By doing so, you might be able to nip it in the bud. Or, at least you can provide your own side of the story.
Richard Branson has a global audience. It might be your audience follows you on Facebook, not Twitter. You might want to reach a television news audience or you might focus on a certain blog. Use the venues that work best for you. For example, a model that was criticized for being too thin in an online photo used Instagram to reply to her critics.
How can you be ready in an instant world?
Your best bet is to be ready before anything ever happens. You have to ask a number of questions: Do you know your key audiences? Have you established relationships across platforms to reach them? Do you have experienced responders for each outlet — both online and off? Have you determined an official hash tag so the public and media know where to follow your updates? Do you have a web page ready? Don’t assume everyone gets information the same way.
What do you mean by message translation?
It takes skill and experience to disseminate information translated into different “languages” for different platforms. For instance, how do you interpret a long statement into 140 characters? This takes practice. Make sure your social media promotion managers can perform under the pressure of bad times. Do they have the discipline to stay on message? Are there others in the company that can take their place? Rumors and false information have to be debunked quickly. Who’s in charge of monitoring?
Your senior spokesperson is the one who determines messages with the senior crisis management team. The messages then flow to the team who are utilizing designated platforms. The whole process of staying on message is vital and must be practiced. Determine how this will work in your company. Speed is essential but so is accuracy.
What should you do in a crisis?
Be sure to follow the crisis management rules. There are so many actions that have to be taken internally before a company can communicate. The faster you have a crisis strategy, the faster you can tell your side of the story. Never assume a big story will go away without taking action.
When a crisis hits, chances are you have little information at first — or you might know less than the public. Regardless, acknowledge that something has happened. Let the public know you will continue to provide information. Become a news source by steering the public to your sites.
The longer it takes to respond, the longer the story lasts — as we saw with Brian Williams. It took him a few days to respond and then he provided a limp apology. One wonders if he had jumped on the Facebook post quickly, the story would not have grown to epic proportions. The news would still be damaging but the attention could have been contained.
Always tell your story even if it’s bad news. Monitor and engage your channels to determine what your followers are saying — both good and bad. Respond to legitimate postings. This engagement will help give you a handle on public opinion.
What If an accusation isn’t true?
There are times when allegations are false. You need to respond speedily with proof, visual if possible. Just saying you are not at fault without back up will not earn credibility. This is what has happened with the Patriot’s deflated football scandal. We have yet to see anything to back their claims.
One of the best examples of vindication came from Pepsi. Syringes were allegedly found in Pepsi cans. Naturally people panicked. Pepsi released a video news release showing the production process to demonstrate that such tampering was impossible within their factories. The company also released a VNR with footage from a grocery-store security camera showing a consumer possibly inserting a syringe into a can of Diet Pepsi. The public could see Pepsi wasn’t the guilty party.
What is Zoom News?
If there is any good news in our instant world, crises have a limited shelf life. A crisis is a reality show that fades when the next crisis episode comes along. For example, where are the deflated footballs or Bill Cosby stories? Information is fast and attention spans are short. But even off the radar, the public has made judgments. Bad news scurries through our collective consciousness. The question is: what will you remember about a crisis episode?
Robin Cohn, founder of Robin Cohn and Company, is a crisis management expert and author. She has worked with Fortune 500 companies to help prepare them for—or address—existing issues for over 30 years. She literally wrote the book on crisis management with The PR Crisis Bible: How to Take Charge of the Media When All Hell Breaks Loose (St. Martin’s Press), an executive guide to protecting companies and personal reputations.
She has been a recognized authority on crisis management since she directed the response of the fatal Air Florida #90 crash in the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. Ms. Cohn advises decision makers on such crises as product boycotts, congressional investigations, bankruptcies and sexual harassment issues.