Newsflash: you no longer have 12, 24 or 48 hours to craft a response to a crisis. #AmazonFAIL took less than 40 hours to go from initial blog post to the print edition of the WSJ.
In the “olden days” (which is when the structure of most Communications departments was configured) you did have time. You bought time as the reporter researched the story, the facts were checked, the copy edited, the plates made, the printing presses started, the newspapers trimmed and folded, loaded on trucks and delivered to your door. You literally had 12 to 48 hours. At least.
Now? Your big, bad news is 140 characters away from becoming public (seconds) or perhaps a blog post away (30 minutes, or the time it takes to write a coherent email).
Can you craft an adequate response to an issue in that timeframe? Can you call up all your stakeholders and put something together that is accurate and meaningful? That addresses the issue? Not likely. And, as I posted about #AmazonFAIL, that will not change. You still need time to craft your message. But the point is, you don’t always have to have a message crafted in order to start responding.
We’ve had a fair bit of experience with large-scale digital crisis communications in our work with Ford Motor Company, among others, over the last few years. Here are some things we’ve observed:
1. You don’t have to have all the answers. But you DO have to have social media channels to let people know that you’re looking into it, and keep them informed of your progress as you work through what’s really going on. Depending on the issue, that in itself can start to calm things down (if you are credible). In one SMG client example, a very large retailer made a significant change for which they were being roundly criticized on Twitter. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a Twitter account. They do now – and use it to respond to issues like this as well as customer complaints. As you’d expect, it’s become a wonderful “early warning” system that has now been integrated into the Communications department workflow.
2. You don’t need to respond to everyone. Shock! Horror! It’s true – not everyone has equal influence, and not everyone’s opinion needs responding to. When you’re dealing with something on the scale of, let’s say, the Automotive Industry Congressional Hearings (for which we ran an aggressive story correction/digital crisis response plan for Ford) the sheer volume of posts means you can’t (and don’t need to) respond to everything. Pick a natural cutoff and work up from there. It’s also really important that your efforts are integrated with MSM crisis communications – the wide distribution of misinformation in a wire story, for example, can trigger hundreds of blog posts that need correction. Look for the hubs of content, both MSM and digital, and ensure you respond there first, otherwise you’re playing Internet Whack-A-Mole, which is very time consuming and hard to get in front of.
3. Social media doesn’t always matter. Again – Shock! Horror! I’ve posted about this before – and I’ll post about it again. Unless an issue makes the transition to a mainstream media or digital platform with a massive audience – it will not gain widespread traction in a short period of time. Numbers on most platforms are too small (if you think your Twitter audience is 30 million, then the number of people who read this blog is about 197 million – that’s how many people are on the Internet in North America). In contrast, a single segment on the ABC World News reaches about 7.5 million people. I’m not saying that TV and Twitter have similar “quality of attention”, but that gives you some context in terms of pure number of eyeballs and reach.
#AmazonFAIL and the Domino’s issues both hit mainstream media. This happened because both were also viral events – that sharing is what pushed the volume to the point where MSM journalists, many of whom regularly troll social media communities for scoops – picked up on them. They also would have been significant stories last week, next month or next year – both were very serious.
4. Mainstream media are dramatically inflating digital crises. Two recent examples of this: Motrin Moms and Starbucks #top3percent. In both cases, ultimately the story was that Someone! On the Internet! Was Saying Something Bad! In six months I guarantee we’ll see less MSM coverage of issues like this because the “company screwed up in social media” story will be old news. If the issue is real, it will build for a considerable time online, and really, if you’re on the ball – you’ll know about it before it becomes a real problem. Also? I’m not sure that Motrin Moms had any effect on the sales of Motrin whatsoever (which is the real test of how damaging an issue is), unlike the Domino’s crisis, which had a big impact (and we can all understand why). Proof to the contrary very welcome!
In conclusion: really serious brand-damaging issues need a wider audience to have an effect in the very short term. Social media simply bubbles them up.
If you’d like to find out more about what a good digital crisis communications plan looks like, Leona Hobbs, SMG’s Director of Communications, will be running workshops on how to prepare a Digital Crisis Communications Plan at the Social Media for Government Conference in Ottawa September 29th-October 2nd, 2009 and the Crisis Communications for Government conference being held in Washington, DC later in 2009.