It’s no secret that the power of digital technology – specifically the ubiquity, immediacy, and mobility of social media – has forever changed the game for communicators. This is especially true for those who are managing communications in times of crisis.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a Webinar on the topic with the team from @ScribbleLive where we explored how the right strategy and technology platform can help you keep up with and get ahead of a crisis.

While digital and social media has created an incredible opportunity for public participation and engagement on any issue, it has also created an environment where the public is forever and always one click away from being publicly outraged. In other words, social has made it easy for the public to become actively (or passively) involved in a range of causes of varying levels of importance. Whether it’s an organization’s commitment to diversity, a privacy breach or a case of abysmal customer service, the common element is that the organization at the centre of the story now must – in some way – respond to the public’s concern. (Deciding how to respond, to whom, and for how long is a separate topic for another post.)

So, what does this mean for organizations that find themselves in the public ire in challenging times? To answer that, first we need to consider a few changes that have occurred to the broader environment. While there are many, these are among the most disruptive:

  • Erosion of trust: There has been a lot of research suggesting that the level of trust in traditional institutions, including large corporations and the government, is on the decline. As a result, organizations are coming under greater scrutiny from an engaged public and civil society, particularly in times of crisis. When it comes to trusting organizations to do the right thing, there’s no more ‘benefit of the doubt’.
  • Great(er) expectations: Distrust on institutions has been further exacerbated by the public’s growing expectations for transparency and the rate at which organizations are sharing information that they may not have thought to disclose previously. This has created an ‘expectation gap’. In these situations, organizations struggle with calls to disclose data and are cautious about setting precedent.
  • Challenging media environment: Traditional media are facing an unprecedented level of competition from a variety of emerging technologies and platforms. To compete, news outlets are doubling down on investigative journalism and dedicating resources to areas where they can create original content that is truly differentiated. For organizations facing a crisis, this can mean multiple and recurring story angles on the same topic, and deep investigation and analysis.

So, what can organizations do to protect their reputations in a crisis? It boils down to three things: anticipate, prepare, and respond.

  • Anticipate: Conduct external research and canvass internal stakeholders to both identify and better understand the risks that your organization faces, in addition to the many audiences with which you’ll need to communicate in a crisis. Use digital tools to spot trends of issues and assess levels of influence of stakeholders.
  • Prepare: Audit and assess existing plans and materials to identify strategic gaps. Identify the response team, key procedures, and project management functions that they will need. Prepare a microsite that will serve as a repository for information and become the go-to source for updates. Conduct a simulation to test the team’s mettle.
  • Respond Online and Offline: Take responsibility and lead the organization’s response quickly and with the right tone. Provide updates as they become available utilizing all channels. If appropriate, consider leveraging video and other multimedia to demonstrate action. Consider SEO keywords to capture search traffic. Focus on communicating the facts and what you know at the time. Remember, communication is only part of the response and you’ll need to depend on other parts of the organization for ongoing support. Engage real-time social conversation monitoring and analysis to identify emerging issues and flare-ups. Create a response matrix that considers the level of influence, tone and volume and stick to it to avoid getting bogged down answering every negative comment on social media. Keep employees updated on the company’s response and give them the messages that they need to communicate with partners and answer questions.

To be effective, communicators need to have a clear understanding of the environment and the deeper context in which their crisis is occurring. Without it, they risk fanning the flames and exacerbating the very issues they are trying to manage. With keen insight, a digital-first approach, in addition to careful planning and preparation, organizations can enhance their effectiveness in managing a reputational crisis.

Vice President, Client Service
Jeff is an industry veteran known for his expertise in reputation management, thought leadership, corporate responsibility and issues management.