Crisis Communication During the Mayan Apocalypse

I’m not sure what it is about this time of year, or perhaps it’s this year in particular. After all, in a heightened state of media with lots of extra time on their hands post-presidential election and pre-impending Mayan Apocalypse, maybe everyone’s bound to go a little crazy – including companies. Since the presidential election ended, it seems like there’s been public relations crisis followed by another and another. Some companies have weathered the media superstorm with grace and class, others, not so much.

The Good
Sesame Street has run into some potholes over the last few months. First, presidential nominee Mitt Romney all but promised to “fire Big Bird” by cutting funding to PBS and its programs if elected president. According to PR Daily, Big Bird went viral immediately after the threat earning 17,000 mentions per minute on microblogging platform Twitter. Instead of issuing a press release the next day with a politically-charged statement taking sides, the publicly funded non-for-profit organization instead turned to humor and quickly diffused its role in a polarizing subject by tweeting, “Big Bird: My bed time is usually 7:45, but I was really tired yesterday and fell asleep at 7! Did I miss anything last night?” Crisis averted – for Big Bird anyway, maybe not for Romney. It’s important to note that in addition to addressing Sesame Street’s unwanted entrance into the political debate instead of ignoring it, the organization was able to neutralize its role. Additionally, Sesame Street addressed the crisis where it originated and was experiencing the most conversation. This enabled their message to have the highest visibility – and sharability to the nature of Twitter.

The Bad
It’s only fitting that the media would find itself smack-dab in the center of one of the worst PR crises to end 2012. This crisis is so frenetic that it just keeps spiraling down a dark black hole. Earlier in the year, the BBC experienced unwanted negative attention when it was revealed that one of its hosts had a history of sexual child abuse. Following the revelation, one of the networks’ most respected news programs aired a report accusing a senior politician of similar misdeeds; however the report was entirely false. This lead to the resignation of the BBC’s director-general, George Entwistle. It seemed like things might finally be on track for the network to start digging itself out of this bad PR well under new leadership. Unlikely. Acting as the BBC’s new spokesperson, an unprepared acting director-general abruptly ended a live broadcast interview with Sky News and walked off camera. In addition to making a mistake in choosing an uneven-tempered spokesperson, another error on behalf of the BBC was the lack of preparation and media training of said spokesperson. The questions asked by Sky News were easily anticipated. The spokesperson should have had a natural, prepared response ready that allowed him to bridge from the initial question to the measures the BBC is now putting into place to ensure accurate reporting and fact checking of all news stories. Needless to say, this video went viral in a bad way.

The Know-how
These are just two examples from the sea of PR crises to choose from right now, but as we move into the New Year, let’s talk about moving forward. Every company, be it B2B or B2C, will face some sort of crisis at some point in its existence. I always say that preparation begins with PR, and nowhere is that more true than in the case of having a crisis communications plan. Most companies actually do put a lot of thought towards crisis communications preparation and follow the process of identifying known potential crises, identifying spokespeople, developing key messages and training spokespeople to communicate them to the media. However, I recently attended Dallas Digital Summit and heard an overwhelming statistic from presenter Dallas Lawrence:

Only one-third of companies include digital and social media in their crisis communications plans today.

In today’s news environment, there is no separation between traditional and digital during a crisis. Your team needs to be prepared on all fronts. In the case of the examples I cited earlier, digital tactics served to make or break each company’s reputation, at the height of crisis. So how should companies utilize social media in preparation for and during a crisis situation? These tips from Lawrence, a specialist with many (most likely stressful) years of crisis management, are a good place to start:

  1. Know and engage key conversation drivers early and often.
  2. Actively monitor not just your reputation but also the activities of your protagonists in social media.
  3. Develop clear, effective and appropriate platform messaging. A crisis happening on Twitter cannot be handled the same as a crisis where Facebook is the melting pot.
  4. Own your brand in social media before someone else does. Even if you’re not actively pursuing a Twitter strategy, not owning your Twitter handle when a crisis arises is the equivalent of being “caught with your pants down.”
  5. Leverage the power of Twitter to communicate your message to the media. Forty-six percent of journalists use Twitter to both find sources and confirm news stories.
  6. Use people instead of logos as your company’s profile pictures and avatars during a time of crisis. Your constituents will want to be reassured by a person.
  7. Be sure you know what you’re talking about. In other words, check all your facts before pulling the Twitter trigger too quickly.
  8. Integrate paid and earned digital strategy. Facebook ads and promoted tweets can add to your message’s visibility and spreadability in an amplified, timely manner.

If you resolve nothing else this New Year, resolve to make sure your marketing team has a plan to incorporate digital and social media strategies into your company’s crisis communications plan. You’ll be glad you did when the other shoe drops after the world ends!

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