Over the past few years, GoCrisis has paid much attention to the social media phenomenon and how it influences the way a crisis unfolds, the way information is shared in crises, and the power of social media as a crisis communications tool for organisations. We have also witnessed many organisations suffer (rightly or wrongly) at the hand of social media. This has made us wonder if this is a new form of witch hunt, where companies have to stand helpless while their brand is being burnt at the stake, with no fair trial. Even in the cases where organisation’s faults have at last been exposed by social media, the punishment did not always entirely fit the crime and the organisation has been given no chance to right the wrong.

It is very clear that speed and tone plays a major factor. How can we be better prepared for these situations? What stand us to do? We have asked Barbara Kracht to give us her thoughts on the matter.

Crisis Communication in the Social Media Age: a “revolution”

– Barbara Kracht

A regrettable recent event has demonstrated how fast a negative “story” can develop in today’s interconnected world and seriously affect a company’s brand and reputation. Prior to the Social Media age, had a passenger been dragged off a plane, this would, probably, not have made it beyond the local news. A photograph might have emerged 24 hours later on the local TV station. But that would have been it, also because the means of transmitting photographs and videos were very limited, time consuming and only accessible to professionals such as the wire services.

Nowadays however, nearly everybody has a smart-phone with excellent photographic and video-recording qualities. Everybody is a potential “reporter”, and pictures and videos can be retransmitted instantaneously around the world. Furthermore, through Social Media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, the public can express its outraged views as the events unfold. And the conventional media thoroughly monitor what is being reported on Social Media and follow the trend.

Today, this Social Media “revolution” represents a tremendous risk for companies, particularly for B to C businesses and service providers such as air transportation. As this development is fairly recent, many may not yet have fully grasped and integrated the full implications of this “revolution”. But the opinion of the consumer makes – or breaks – the reputation of a company. And today this can be instantaneous. “How XXX became the most hated airline in one day” was the headline in Forbes magazine a few weeks ago, for example.

This represents a tremendous new challenge for communicators who need to be prepared to proactively respond within minutes to an unfolding event for which they don’t even have all the facts. In a way they have to anticipate on the unknown. As it is hard to predict all scenarios – who would have imagined that a peaceful paying passenger might be violently dragged out of an aircraft and subsequently be seen bleeding? – it is important to have predeveloped basic guidelines to cover potential categories of occurrences. These guidelines should become an integral part of the existing Crisis Communications (CC) Manual.

Because of the speed at which news spread nowadays, substantially increasing the risk of crises, the CC Manual should not only cover the consequences of an accident or major incident, but any type of event which could affect a customer or an employee and could potentially develop into a crisis.

Also, Social Media are to be considered an integral part of Crisis Communication and a key communication tool. In fact, analysis of the latest crises has demonstrated that Twitter and Facebook posts have overtaken the conventional press releases. They are not only quoted by conventional media – press releases hardly are in such circumstances any longer – but are also used as illustrations. Tweets are even shown in TV reports when other images are lacking.

Furthermore, in today’s interconnected world, one should not forget that all stakeholder categories can easily communicate with each other. The affected ones can express their resentment publicly via Social Media if they wish to do so. Employees can directly read all what is said about their company and also comment, even if this is being discouraged by their employers. Shareholders and investors closely monitor what is going on and want to be re-assured that the event is properly managed. As for the business partners, they too want to be assured that they will be in good hands when flying with company X. They all need to be addressed and re-assured in a coordinated fashion.

Therefore, in addition to what used already to be done in the past years, the challenge for Crisis Communicators today is not only to be extremely fast and, pro-active, and therefore having anticipated on and being prepared for all possible types of negative events which could develop into a crisis, and not only the accidents and major incidents. But Crisis Communications also needs to address all the stakeholders a company has to deal with.

This means having in place the adequate organisation and internal, well prepared and trained resources to swiftly cope with the situation. There is no time to call in an external consultant for the initial instantaneous response. The company has to be ready, with the right tools – including Social Media – and infrastructure to allow it to respond and be immediately in control of the unfolding event, so as to efficiently protect its brand and reputation.

This means being fully “prepared” for these new additional challenges, so as to be ready for when the event strikes. It means investing upstream in something which – hopefully – may never happen. But this preventive investment may be well below the cost of recovering a lost reputation. Never to forget: being well prepared for Crisis Communications is an integral part of “Risk Management” and helps ensure good “Business Continuity” and the company’s survival.