Crisis Communications In The Age Of Social Media

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I read (and reread) The New York Times article on crisis communications with interest. I want to repeat what I wrote yesterday – for anyone who works in communications, this article is worth a read.

AHA Take

I don’t agree with every expert quoted in the piece, but not agreeing is a good thing. It makes you step back and review why you think the way you do.

One of the experts in this article explains that sometimes, there is nothing you can do when a crisis hits except take your hits and get back to business; that sometimes you can’t get out in front of an issue or a crisis (I am paraphrasing here). He uses the Tiger Woods crisis as an example.

I disagree – specifically with the examples cited in this article. We wrote a blog post on Tiger Woods a while back and I still believe that had Tiger communicated more openly and admitted that he had affairs and explained what he was going to do about it, this crisis may have had a different outcome. Now, we’re still seeing women who claim they had an affair with Tiger come out of the woodwork.

While I agree that stepping up, admitting what happened truthfully and taking responsibility won’t necessarily absolve an executive, celebrity or anyone from what they did (and it shouldn’t), not taking responsibility can damage your brand further. There is a new level of expectation, of transparency and openness that isn’t going away that social media supports and expands. Every situation is different and should be approached that way. But, secrecy, dishonesty and outright lies will come back and damage you, sometimes worse than the original crisis.

One of the other key points that jumped out at me in this article is that what the CEO or senior executive thought they were communicating was not always what was received by the community they were speaking to. That’s one of the huge challenges – you know what you want to tell people and you share the information in a way that you think is appropriate, but human beings have a funny way of being…well, human. We want to hear what we want to hear, not necessarily what you want us to hear.

Having BP’s Tony Hayward in front during the current crisis might have looked great on paper, but anyone who has travelled to the Gulf knows what an incredibly unique culture that region has. Having a somewhat arrogant CEO with a British accent suit up and talk “at” people just wasn’t going to fly in that area. Even if Tony Hayward had the best intentions, his delivery was all wrong for the people of the Gulf Coast. It has its own culture and it seemed that no one took that into consideration. Add to the disconnect the fact that BP looked like it was downplaying how much oil was spilling into the Gulf, what it meant to the people there and the environment and, almost from day one, BP had it’s back against the wall.

At the end of the article, the point (and it’s a good one) is made that no matter what, you need to have a crisis plan in place. Especially in this day and age, it is a crucial component of an organization’s strategy.

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