Digital PR Disasters and the New Crisis Communications

James Coleman

Mar 1, 2020

This blog piece covers key takeaways based on a recorded transcript from the event. Please note this is a summary of the discussion and not the speaker’s actual verbiage. 

Reputation is an extremely valuable asset, yet many CEOs fail to account for just how valuable it is until it’s at risk. Bungling the response to an unfortunate event may not only spell financial disaster, but it also can have an equally negative effect on staffing and morale. 

Considering the stakes, you’d expect companies to regularly engage in crisis management simulations, but a recent PRNews study reveals that nearly 60% of middle and senior managers are either unsure or have never engaged in a crisis exercise. This same study reveals that nearly 40% of organizations lack even a crisis communications plan. 

Failing to prepare for disaster carries its own set of risks, especially as digital media’s influence on reputation continues growing. When people were asked not long ago which type of media has the capacity to do the most damage to a company’s image, social media came out on top.1The reason being social media is often emotional media. Because the medium allows users to connect with brands instantly, people have unfiltered access and are free to express their unfiltered opinions—oftentimes anonymously. So if someone feels wronged by your company’s actions or policies, there’s nothing preventing them from venting their outrage.

 Against this backdrop provided by Bob Pickard, managing partner of National Public Relations, Meltwater Canada hosted a breakfast event for a gathering of communications professionals in Ottawa on February 20. Pickard shared insights accumulated over the course of three decades in public relations, including executive stints in Asia and North America. The focus of his talk was the need for organizations to adapt their crisis planning to accommodate the extraordinary impacts of digital media.

Digital PR crises that Pickard covered in his keynote included a handful of airlines, Starbucks, and Facebook. Several conclusions presented in the keynote are shared here.

Meltwater Ottawa Business Breakfast - Digital PR Disasters & the New Crisis Communications

Understand how each social media channel works to get maximum bang for your buck

A study performed by Hootsuite in January 2019 revealed that Canada has 25 million active social media users, comprising 67% of the population. Pickard says this level of popularity and reach should compel everyone in communications to become more familiar with each channel’s audience and personality and begin programming for these. Optimizing your communications to capitalize on a channel’s specific algorithm is imperative. Algorithms change over time, so you’ll want to keep up.

Encourage your CEO to be active on social media — your customers expect it

A 2018 Nanos Research survey found that 61% of Canadians think it’s important for CEOs to use social media to directly communicate with the public during a crisis, yet very few Canadian CEOs are active social users. Pickard contrasts this with the current US president, pointing to his success in rallying his base as an illustration of what an active social media presence can do.

Identify opportunities to align your company with emerging issues

For credibility reasons, information should be a two-way street. Listening is as important as issuing statements. And whereas previously you could get away with communicating one thing at a time, today you’re confronted with multiple storylines and accelerating news cycles. This offers you more opportunities to conceive a corporate narrative that responds to trending issues and results in a winning persona. 

Don’t be afraid to reveal your imperfections or exhibit emotion

Pickard says he advises his clients to satisfy audiences’ growing thirst for authenticity by acknowledging flaws, while also communicating their key takeaway in a positive way. He believes that communication has become too polished and that showing emotion often works to your advantage. In order to be taken seriously, the organization must be seen as forthright.

Make the case for placing social media under PR or corporate communications

For crisis management to be most effective, it can’t be in conflict with messaging intended to sell products. As an example of what can go wrong when marketing assumes control of social media, Pickard cited the case of Malaysia Airlines. When the marketing team tweeted in the middle of a crisis, the airline felt compelled to issue an apology. 

If you’re unable to simulate a crisis, at least establish a chain of command

While crisis preparation is important, Pickard hears people say it’s too difficult to plan for all of today’s contingencies. He agrees this is a challenge but says you should at least establish a chain of command and way of doing things. Thinking about how to deal with people at scale will give you a big leg up on a worst-case scenario. Focus your efforts here first.

1 - Nanos Research, telephone and online survey, March-April 2016