Jun 14, 2010

Are You Ready for Real-Time? Crisis Communication in the Digital Era

Posted by: gstockman In: Porter Novelli| crisis management| global news| social media


These days, people whose job it is to communicate during a crisis could be forgiven for thinking, “I hope that never happens to me.”  Unfortunately, as one of my clients is fond of saying, hope is not a strategy. And even if it once was, it’s no longer the case in the era of social media.

We live in a world that’s digitally fueled, radically transparent and moving at hyper speed.  Yet recent events suggest that many companies are not only unprepared for a crisis, what preparations they may have taken often apply to an outdated communication landscape.

Today, what’s required is real-time reputation management – an approach that combines sound crisis counsel with digital and social media expertise to keep pace with always-on news cycles and the transparency of the Web.  At Porter Novelli, our Real-time Reputation Specialty includes everything from preemptive communications to programs that restore corporate reputation after an incident.  It pairs the speed and reach of social media itself with the insights and judgment of seasoned specialists in corporate affairs.

Our experts use online and offline tools, such as vulnerability audits and early warning monitoring, to reveal potential problem areas and help prevent incidents before they occur.  They offer preparation – from message testing and collateral development to alliance-building and simulations – to get organizations ready to respond to crises and threats in real-time.  And if an issue does flare up, they have an arsenal of digital and conventional tools to mitigate the situation and help restore reputation.

Keeping recent events in mind, here is some advice from our experts.  How prepared is your organization to handle the unexpected?

If Social Media Can Start Crises, It Can Stop Them Too

Social media can damage brand equity in minutes, so it follows that social media must be a critical component in any crisis or competitive threat response.  While many organizations see social media only as a way to talk, its greatest value is its ability to empower listening.  But be forewarned: digital tends to compress online voices until they all are assumed equal.  It is crucial to recognize key influencers in an audience in order to track sentiment accurately.  Using a tool such as Porter Novelli’s Influencer Weight Score can help reveal who or what you really need to worry about vs. something or someone you can safely ignore.

Don’t Mistake Communications Solutions for Crisis Solutions

Perhaps the greatest change brought on by digital and social media is the public’s understanding of spin and the prominent role that communications professionals play during a crisis.  Companies who view a real crisis – even a catastrophe – primarily as a messaging challenge will fail on all fronts.  When a crisis hits, the real problem is the crisis itself, not how to spin it.  Especially when lives are lost or at stake, communications must be used to accurately and effectively communicate what actions are being taken to avert or minimize tragedy.  Overly and overtly concerning yourself with how you are perceived doesn’t effectively respond to a crisis – it adds insult to injury.  People will remember callousness or corporate self-interest long after they have forgotten, and forgiven, an accident or scandal.

Technology Demands Transparency

The explosive rise of digital technology has raised the bar for all actors in a crisis.  Everybody now knows that pertinent data is both available and easy to distribute.  It is no longer acceptable to say, “Well, we can’t really measure the effects at this time.”  You are now speaking to an audience that knows that you can measure virtually anything, and that you probably have the ability to communicate the information in real time. In the digital era, people believe that when you say, “We aren’t able to tell you,” it really means “we don’t want to tell you.”  Gradually releasing more information because of public pressure casts further suspicion.  Better to be transparent from the start.

Moving Beyond Crisis Binders and Crossed Fingers

Smart organizations today have already undertaken a measure of crisis preparedness.  Often they have a binder full of information and protocols ready to be deployed in the event of a crisis.  But that binder may be providing a false sense of security if it hasn’t been updated for a while or augmented with digital resources such as early warning tools, influencer maps and a comprehensive social media response plan.

Not If, But When

Organizations today are learning that the power and possibility of today’s diverse communication landscape can quickly foment non-issues, mistruths or isolated incidents into serious threats to corporate reputation and brand equity.  And while it is not always clear from which quarter a crisis may emerge, what is certain is that it will strike in the future, not five years ago.  Don’t try to answer its challenges with outdated contingencies.  Crises propelled by today’s communications platforms are best managed using the latest, digitally powered techniques and tools.

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