Crisis Communications 101 in the Digital Age

Eric Bovim

Les Moonves surely knows he has P.R. crisis on his hands. Most companies, however, come to realize they are mired in a crisis when it’s too late.

Les Moonves

By too late, I mean things are nearly spiraling out of control, you know, about to hit the front pages of The New York Times. By then, the dye is cast. When the ink is dry the time has come and gone to undertake any crisis preparedness, yet this is usually when a firm receives a frantic call from a company, and a rushed agreement is made between a company and an agency to get control over the situation.

This is not an impossible task but it’s certainly an avoidable misery. There’s certainly no reason why a corporate communications function cannot properly forecast a P.R. crisis—or recognize one barreling towards the C-suite at the speed of a tweet.

Good crisis P.R. begins with preemptive recognition and acceptance that there is a crisis on hand. Shockingly, in my experience, this is not the norm, it is the exception.

Without this preemptive recognition, there can be no preemptive planning; the lack of planning is precisely the problem that plagues companies beset by a crisis. For example, if Company X is faced with a national recall of its product, it must be ready with not only messaging but also with key documents and even a microsite to elevate that messaging on the web. What happens if that company forestalls the creation of these materials because of budget, or, worse, it doesn’t believe the recall will materially affect its reputation?

Beyond preemptive recognition, companies need to understand the principle of Be the Media. The concept demands that the corporation perceives itself as a publisher of content rather than a dispenser of clenched statements to eager media.

Companies like Disney, for example, understand well enough the notion of company as media entity.

However, companies farther afield from media must adopt the posture of a media outlet for themselves if they are to shotgun their message directly to audiences and bypass the traditional media; this is possible today with digital media and the ability of paid promotion to attract the right eyeballs to content. In other words, a company in crisis can redirect consumers to see its content nearly instantaneously—if it wants to—using social media and advertising, not simply through the old tactics like press conferences and 60 Minutesinterviews.

Finally, working with a crisis P.R. agency need not be a like riding a mechanical bull. Once a crisis has been admitted, use the following principles to guide you through the storm.

1.     Is This A Crisis? A good litmus test for P.R. is whether this issue crosses the threshold of regular news to front-page news. If so, you have a crisis. Another test: if this repeatedly gets ink in the paper on the front pages (or all over the Internet) for several days, then it’s definitely a serious crisis.

2.     What If It’s Just Twitter? Well, whose account? Twitter also has the potential to bleed into other media. The risk of contagion is real. So watch out for this medium and monitor it in real time.

3.     Should We Issue A Statement? Statements are for use in response to real-time media; you should always draft several contingent holding statements preemptively. That is good practice anyway. This is something your agency should be doing.

4.     Our Stock Is Crashing…! You have a content problem. Likely you are engulfed in negative press and need to wash it out with new content and new messaging. Launch a website specific to your effort, add video, but do something to tourniquet the bleeding.

5.     Should My CEO Do An Op-ed? Not unless this is a very serious situation and it is necessary. CEOs are the like the queen on the chessboard: use them wisely and sparingly.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn. Follow Eric on LinkedIn for more expert insights on all things Public Relations and Strategic Communications.