Monday, April 5, 2010

Your Crisis Communications Could Cause a Crisis

Here’s a warning for communicators in all types of organizations: Responding to a crisis has become totally different – and much more complex – than ever before, thanks to the viral world of social media. If your crisis communications playbook is more than 18 months old, throw it away and start over. We’re in a different era.

At our offsite meeting earlier this month, Jim Van Nostrand, Web Editor of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau, told us that crisis communicators need to think of themselves as digital journalists, making use of every form of media as rapidly as possible: get the message out by tweeting, then blog posts, then conventional statements and Web site content, update tweets and blogs, and don’t forget YouTube. Your critics will be pounding every digital medium – so must you.

Beyond that, we are seeing another new threat. In the wake of a crisis, critics will pore over the company’s response – especially its use of social media – as a reflection of its culture and trustworthiness. And that can lead to another wave of crisis.

Just this week, three major MSM publications have taken whacks at companies for not using social media effectively during a crisis – and in passing, to praise companies for using it well.

The Wall Street Journal describes how Nestlé is taking “a beating on social-media sites” in a crusade led by Greenpeace. The issue: purchasing palm oil from sources that are “contributing to destruction of Indonesia’s rain forest.” But the real focus is Nestlé’s heavy-handed strategy for Facebook and YouTube, which incited more protesters to post thousands of critical articles on the company’s own Facebook fan page. By comparison, the article cites Domino’s Pizza as an example of an effective response to digital media criticism, with its own immediate use of the Web and on-line videos to apologize and describe its corrective actions.

In an on-line article on “5 Lessons from Social Media PR Disasters,” the Atlantic said that Nestlé violated a basic rule: “Don’t insult your customers.” Its response was too combative and in effect shifted the debate to its very handling of the crisis. The other four rules are based on case studies of social media used in crisis response by Southwest Airlines (good), Toyota (bad), Domino’s (good) and Motrin (bad).

The New York Times Magazine focused on how companies have used their own Web sites to respond to crises – often making them worse. A British company that sells umbrella strollers posted “the classic insincere apology” accompanied by “petulance and paranoia.” Toyota made its recall crisis sound “exciting and newsy,” just business as usual with no tone of apology. And seems untouched since 2008 – “delusional.”

So the lesson of the week: in our digital world, how you respond to a crisis can create a new one. Are you prepared?

- Potomac Communications Group

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