Sunday, 7 March 2010

Crisis management in the digital age

Over the past few years, social media has had an impact, whether bigger or smaller, on people, communities and businesses and has brought certain undeniable changes with it. Even if its revolutionary and groundbreaking effects have been exaggerated by some, one thing that social media has definitely transformed is the way in which we communicate with each other. Which means that the way we discover information and share it is also transforming.

Today's social channels are more influential and powerful than their predecessors and they insure the rapid diffusion on public opinion. In this new digital age, news of a negative event or incident has the potential to spread faster that any crisis experienced by previous generations has. All of these things lead to organisations modifying not only the way they are handling, planning and implementing crisis management, but also the way they perceive and understand what a crisis is.

One of the first things that companies need to figure out is what they define as being a crisis on the web; what is the tipping point when an online event triggers or develops into a crisis for that organisation? Once that is cleared up they can start thinking about planning, both proactive and reactive, for the appropriate crisis management solutions.

Two years ago, Brian Solis talked about reinventing crisis communications for the social web and suggested that "many, if not a majority of potential crises are now avoidable through proactive listening, engagement, response, conversation, humbleness, and transparency." The crisis management model he put forward is based on listening, observation and conversation:

This model is a proactive one that aims at reducing the need for reactive responses and crisis communications programmes.

Monitoring becomes absolutely essential in the social web and companies must be sure to set up 'digital listening posts' on all relevant platforms. It is essential to have social media channels set up and the more credible they are (number of followers or friends, quality of information), the better the company will be able to make use of them in a crisis situation or for the prevention of such an event.

Timothy Coombs said that "the rapid evolution of new media often results in the practice of public relations getting ahead of research." This applies to crisis management where the relevant literature in the field has been slow in catching up with the challenges that social media is imposing on it. This gap is mostly filled by bloggers who look at the latest ongoing case-studies (such as Toyota or Domino's Pizza) to draw conclusions and develop or adapt rules and theory.

PR companies and professionals have also had to adapt to these new realities and incorporate digital services in their crisis management offers. According to Eddie Bensilum (who was a guest speaker in the course's Corporate PR module) from Regester Larkin, all the main principles of crisis management have stayed the same, but some of the rules, especially when it comes to credibility, are different.

Social media can be either a trigger for a crisis or it can work as an escalating factor for an already existing one. Due to its unstructured nature it can severely complicate the activities and actions of crisis management. Social media creates new structures and circles of trust and it requires up-skilling and different resources to be used in the crisis management process. However, it can also be an asset for the organisation; social media can help identify potential crises sooner and, thus, prevent them from escalating further, or it can take an incipient issue for the organisation and transform it into an opportunity to shine in front of the stakeholders.

Social media adds a new dimension to crisis management, as there are now larger groups involved and a lot less time to act. News, especially negative ones, travels much faster than through traditional channels and it has a much wider reach. If before a company could buy some time while the reporters researched the story, the facts were checked, the copy edited, the newspapers printed and delivered to the public, now all it has are the 30 seconds it takes to write a 140 character message on Twitter or the 30 minutes it takes to compose a blog post. And the reach that potential blog post or Twitter message could have can go beyond what traditional media can achieve.

It has become the job of the crisis communicator today to take notice of all these things, course correct the rules, strategies, tactics and tools to be used, while still following the same management principles that have paved the way to success in the past.

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Ralu said...

Thank for sharing Brian Solis' model. It is very interesting. Indeed, proactivity seems to work most of the time. As you said, monitoring is important in this respect. And luckily we have all kinds of useful tools to help up with online monitoring: RSS, Technoratti, Twitter search and so on. Speed is the word describing social media. This is sometimes in the advantage of a company (e.g. when launching a new product) but it is an issue when dealing with online crisis. The problem is PR pro can no longer control what is being written after a crisis occurs. Whereas with print media they can release their position (which will be printed in the next day's newspaper and read by the same people hearing the bad news) with social media the official position might not reach all the receivers of the negative messages.

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