As first appeared in YPO’s magazine Ignite.

Given the speed at which information now flows, it’s tempting to think that companies operating in the 1990s and early 2000s had it easy when it came to crisis communications. After all, bad news could actually be contained. Companies could reach important stakeholders, shareholders, and partners by phone and manage the message. Journalists had to wait for the printing press to finish before their stories were published.

It’s not just the rise of the Internet that has changed the way we communicate; the evolution of social media has fundamentally altered the way companies respond to crisis.

The power of social media makes it harder to control the conversation

The power of social media (such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook) is unprecedented in times of crisis.

Blog, micro-blogs, and file-sharing platforms let everyone spread or exchange information at the touch of a button and this in turn accelerates the pace at which information is amplified and communities are mobilized. Traditional media such as newspapers and TV stations now compete and collaborate with growing ranks of citizen journalists. Reporters live-Tweet from press events, deadlines don’t exist, and few stop to fact-check.

The filter between company actions and the public has disappeared, which means the potential for misinformation and alternative sources of information to shape the public conversation is magnified. And social media have the capacity to escalate an issue and affect an organization’s reputation more quickly than you can read this article.

Speed, credibility, and transparency in a crisis are absolutes. At a time when non-traditional media often report a story first, potential issues take constant monitoring and require a clearly defined and rehearsed process to address them.

Monitor constantly and provide stakeholders with timely information

Monitoring is key. While a corporate website remains the primary point of contact between a company and its most important audiences, information spreads wider and faster by Twitter. A company must control all channels that apply to its business and monitor all online references in doing so. If not, the brand risks being affected by the opinions of third parties.

Think about your own reaction to an issue: you probably plug the organization’s name into a search engine. Now think about the risk to the brand when the search results come from a Twitter feed or activist’s blog rather than a channel controlled by that company. The power of search engines to shape corporate reputations is formidable.

A study by a professional services firm found that it’s harder to distrust a person than to distrust a corporation. A Tweet or photo from someone claiming first-hand experience of an issue therefore carries more weight than a corporate news release. As a result, companies must work hard to establish the voice of authority in providing accurate, timely, and credible information.

Maintain traditional communications best practices

Although this may seem a Herculean task, a company can take concrete steps to build credibility and protect its brand and reputation. Despite the emergence of social media, a company must still deliver these fundamentals:

  • Constant transparency
  • Consistent messaging across all channels and audiences
  • Direct communication with key stakeholders
  • Positive relationships with traditional media
  • Cooperation with regulators, government agencies, and other organizations.

These best practices should be part of a daily communications protocol to ensure that a company’s voice is trusted and can rise above the online fray.

Make crisis preparation a mandatory investment

In my opinion, any company operating in 2015 must invest in two aspects of crisis management:

  • Crisis preparedness audit and planning: Examine existing processes; capabilities; policies and protocols; monitoring processes; response and outreach tools; roles and responsibilities; and partner involvement. Follow up by developing a crisis communications plan.
  • Crisis simulation rehearsals: Rehearse the crisis communications plan annually with a full-scale simulation under the supervision of a facilitator. Share feedback and adjust the plan as necessary.

These basic tenets will determine if a company is able to protect its brand and reputation in a crisis. By practising disciplined communications and investing in crisis preparedness, a company ensures that it can take control of the conversation when a crisis hits.

Five principles of crisis preparedness

Many rules get tossed around when it comes to crisis preparedness. Here are the five most important ones I use with my clients to get started:

  1. Go beyond a website. Optimize your online presence to facilitate speed, transparency, and credibility when managing a crisis.
  2. Spell it out. Provide employees with defined policies to guide their behaviour both on- and offline during a crisis.
  3. Engage instead of provoke. Determine when and how to engage with online communities and participate in conversations the company did not start.
  4. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Continue using traditional means to communicate directly with stakeholders.
  5. Remember the importance of paper: Plan for when the lights go out and computers shut down, keeping hard copies of all materials and offsite back-ups.

Are you confident that these principles are part of your company’s daily communications practice? Does your team have the right expertise?

If you’re unsure about even one of these rules, reach out to an expert. When it comes to crisis communications, your company’s brand and reputation should never be left to chance.

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