Crisis PR in the Social World: Where Everything Is Public

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Julian-AssangeAs yesterday’s Black Blox Blog post pointed out, several high profile corporations have — to questionable effect — involved themselves in the WikiLeaks scandal by cutting off public modes of support to the embattled website. What would have been, in the Old World, a quiet blacklisting by the powerful is, in the New Economy, front page (and blog, Twitter, and Facebook) news — and not exactly a PR win.

So what’s a company to do when an official position puts it at odds with the very vocal social world as we know it?

 The first step is to see it coming.

  • Identify potential crises in the making, and have fully media-trained spokespeople–online and off–ready to go for when disaster strikes.
  • Be prepared to be under attack that goes beyond just verbal, as MasterCard, PayPal, and others experienced when WikiLeaks supporters — in some cases, successfully — worked to take down entire websites. Have alternate channels of communication open, and make sure your spokespeople aren’t the same folks who will be tied up trying to keep the business up and running.

The second is to be open–especially if you have to do something unpopular.

  • When conversational social medialites see a locked door, it’s the proverbial red flag in front of the bull. If ever there was an anti-stonewalling, anti-“no comment” medium, this is it. So proactively announce (especially unpopular) decisions and give people a space in which to comment and, if necessary, vent.
  • This is where that media training is key: you’re going to have to post comments, answer tweets, and field tough questions from seasoned reporters and incensed bloggers. It’s probably going to take several people to handle the volume, and you need all of them to both stay on message (pleasantly) and respond honestly and directly. To highly trained spokespeople, those mandates aren’t contradictory.

The third is to listen.

  • Resist the temptation to barricade yourself in your sound bite. If you do the online equivalent of nodding pleasantly and saying, “uh-huh,” while not listening, it will be obvious and it will likely enrage your critics. Listen, answer, discuss, and make it obvious that you are reading their comments with the intent to reconcile.
  • Remember that winning is not about obliterating the opposition. We’re talking hearts and minds here.

Finally, as a company unit, when possible, be willing to change your mind. In some cases you can’t (many would say WikiLeaks, with the legal implications, is an example). But there are times when engagement with critics will reveal that you’ve made a genuine mistake. (See the Gap logo brouhaha.) In that case, pivoting has a benefit beyond mere correction, and it’s one that businesses frequently misread: what you might see as bowing to pressure — a weakening of the company — may actually be a new brand of positive customer empowerment. The irate critics of one moment could be the involved stakeholders of the next. That’s crisis PR with an eye to opportunity.

Kate Schackai
Kate combines a technical understanding of web 2.0 with classic PR savvy, resulting in online communications that both humans and Google love. She joins Crawford from WordPress development firm TCWebsite, where she worked in online marketing and search engine optimization.

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