Image source: Wikipedia

Although long-held PR crisis management recommendations generally remain valid, they require extensive revision, many crisis communications experts argue. The long-standing PR crisis playbook still holds, but it may need some new chapters.

Social media and ubiquitous smart phones allow almost anyone to initiate a brand crisis. Twenty-year-olds posting on Instagram can become more influential than many media outlets. Customers expect corporations to take a stance on political and cultural issues and are quick to publicly criticize and boycott brands.

The Accelerated Pace of PR Crises

“The old guidebooks and teachings for crisis management are becoming increasingly irrelevant given the nature and speed of how issues emerge and escalate in the age of social media,” says Chris Britton, COO of RockDove Solutions, in a PRsay article.

James Donnelly, a senior vice president in crisis management at Ketchum, cites three reasons why the traditional crisis playbook has changed in the opening chapter of RockDove’s new e-book, The New Rules of Crisis Management – Issues & Crisis Planning and Response in the Digital Age.

The public feels empowered and entitled. The long-standing crisis playbook urges PR to “address all stakeholders with empathetic and authentic communications.” Today, people share their views on their digital networks. That change requires PR to embrace more sophisticated monitoring and evaluation tools and to employ social media for two-way communications – and to respond to many more “media outlets” to correct misinformation.

Public attention is fleeting. People feel bombarded with more information and news than ever. That means the first 48 hours of a crisis are more intense than before, yet outrage and attention dissipates more quickly as the next major news event appears. As a result, the sound bite has become even more important. PR needs step-by-step approaches to reach smaller, influential audiences with more detailed information.

Traditional media has changed. In the past, the mainstream media would hold organizations up to scrutiny and hold perpetrators accountable. The traditional media has lost much credibility. Some newsrooms would rather risk being wrong than being scooped by a citizen with a smartphone and a Twitter account. The public sometimes seems unconcerned about the facts in news coverage if the media’s interpretation supports their own pre-held beliefs and ideology.

The takeaways for communicators:

  • Validating “truth and facts” has become more urgent.
  • Having allies has never been more critical.
  • Maintaining message consistency across all channels is crucial.

The Need for Social Media Monitoring and Measurement

The proliferation of social media means monitoring and measuring social media is imperative for reputation management and crisis communications. “Measuring only media coverage is to see the situation in one dimension,” says Simon Erskine Locke, founder & CEO of CommunicationsMatch. “The measure of whether a story has legs and will have lasting damage will be reflected in how it resonates across audiences and the communications channels they use.”

Locke offers these recommendations on what to track during a PR crisis.

Key people. Many companies measure volume, or the number of media mentions, even in a PR crisis. But it’s often more important to determine exactly who is saying what. How are clients and influencers reacting to the crisis? Their reactions will have the most impact and may require targeted responses.

Website traffic. Website traffic, especially to a landing page or company newsroom, can measure audience reactions. Posting a company statement about the crisis on the home page makes sense in most situations. Sharing information across departments in real-time can be challenging, but an integrated communications system enables immediate access to information.

Sales. For consumer products, real-time sales tracking can offer significant insights. Consumers may decide not to purchase products. Questions consumers ask on social media and customer center representatives can also indicate the extent of a potential problem.

Surveys. PR teams typically don’t consider conducting research during the heat of a crisis. They view surveys as costly and time consuming and worry that research may increase awareness of the issue. But new survey tools developed by CommunicationsMatch in partnership with Researchscape offer more affordable, cost effective solutions.

Metrics now available to crisis communications professionals can provide a detailed, near real-time assessment of how a crisis is playing out and how the company’s messages are resonating, enabling a more effective response.  “The key is not to look at them in isolation, but as data points for an integrated holistic picture of the impact of a crisis on a company’s brand,” Locke concludes.

Assess all Risks – Expand Media Monitoring

On-going and proactive monitoring to identify potential reputational hot points may help prevent escalation of problem situations.

“We all monitor for potential PR crises. But today, you must consider all your reputational risks and expand your monitoring strategy accordingly,” recommends Jacqueline Kolek, managing director of Peppercomm, in an article in O’Dwyers. Kolek urges PR professionals to:

Evaluate all risks. Think like an activist — or an investigative reporter — to assess all of your reputational risks. Identify any “stupid stuff” that the company may be doing – and take quick action to correct it. Is the company breaking (or bending) any laws or regulations? Are there any product safety issues? Does the company have any discriminatory policies? Are there any environmental issues? Is there any financial hocus-pocus? Is the company mishandling consumer data? Are any company executives supporters of extremist groups? Is the company on the “right side” of sensitive issues? Are there any indications of sexual misconduct by executives, managers or staff? A management meeting that frankly discusses reputation risks can uncover potential problems. Willful blindness is not a defense.

Define the company’s stance and purpose. Many Americans want companies to speak out on issues and expect corporations to work of the good of society. Define your corporate purpose beyond making money and determine the company’s stance on pertinent issues. Then plan responses to issues that may emerge.

Obtain robust monitoring technology. In today’s environment, monitoring tools must track more keywords, phrases and other information. Your monitoring tool must cover traditional media, social media and broadcast, offer real-time reporting, and consolidate data in a single dashboard.

Bottom Line: The accelerated pace of today’s media environment and new attitudes of customers require a new – or at least revised – PR crisis playbook. Careful assessment of potential risks, advanced planning, and ongoing media monitoring and measurement are more important than ever to ensure the company survives a PR crisis.