7 essentials for crisis navigation

From ill-advised tweets to product recalls to massive data breaches, reputational disasters could lie just beyond the horizon. Keep these protocols in mind to weather the storm.


I am well aware that, while I sat at the International Public Relations Research Conference (IPRRC) in Miami thinking big thoughts and drinking big mojitos, you, gentle reader, were sitting in your office dealing with your latest crisis.

Perhaps you are trying to figure out how to come up for air when you’ve got too many reporters calling you. Or maybe your latest Twitter faux pas is trending, and you can hear your CEO yelling from two floors up.

I enjoy envisioning how research presented at the IPRRC can be applied to everyday situations. Here are seven tips to help you through your next crisis:

1. Count your crisis comments to understand your opposition.

The conclusion of many of the presenters at IPRRC is that communications pros in the middle of a crisis are too inwardly focused. Rather than listening to those members of the public who might help them navigate out of the crisis, they are too busy worrying about which words to say.

Anna Kochigina of the University of Oklahoma (“Framing the Crisis in the Digital Environment“) recommends listening to your key stakeholders by reading and analyzing comments on social media. She used Tesla’s fire crisis to test her theory. It turns out that in today’s crisis environment there are essentially two groups of people:

1. Faith-holders: Positively engaged stakeholders who trust and like your organization or brand and support it despite the negative news.

2. Hate-holders: Those who dislike or hate the brand or organization and don’t want you to succeed.

Faith-holders, for example, might be investors who see self-gain in the crisis. Hate-holders may self-identify by spouting conspiracy theories.

Your survival, Kochigina found, depends on making sure the faith-holders outnumber the hate-holders. If you analyze comments during a crisis and count how many of each type there are, you will better understand:

  • The severity of the crisis;
  • How much work you have to do;
  • How to respond.

2. Provide journalists with a human connection, not corporate-speak.

Another team of researchers focused on what journalists want in a crisis. Lucinda L. Austin of Elon University, Yan Jin of the University of Georgia, and Brook Fisher Liu of the University of Maryland interviewed 40 seasoned journalists and discovered that what they want most from an organization during a crisis is emotional intelligence (“Crisis Information Generation and Spread“). The speed and volume of information during a crisis are a given. What’s often missing is the human emotional intelligence that will help people deal with that information.

Interviews showed that journalists serve as information gatherers and fact checkers and depend on PR practitioners to put things in context. The research concluded that organizations have an opportunity to serve as credible sources:

  • Social media is where breaking news will happen;
  • Traditional media is where the deep storytelling will happen;
  • What people want most is accuracy.

3. Confront crisis rumors with information.

Allport and Postman’s rumor equation says the intensity of a rumor is directly proportional to the interest one has in the topic and the lack of hard news about that topic. Jensen J. Moore-Copple of Louisiana State University, Robert Pritchard of the University of Oklahoma, and Michael Climek of Louisiana State University used that rumor equation to study the traditional and social media response to the Malaysian Airline Flight 370 crash (“Rumor Control or Rumor Central“).

Their analysis of 118,174 data points found that 25 percent of all rumors were labeled as fact, and 32 percent of rumors contained a kernel of truth. They conclude that during the early hours of a crisis, both the interest and the lack of information affect rumor production and are important factors in understanding stakeholder and media demand for information.

4. Address concerns from the most important stakeholders at each stage of a crisis.

In ongoing research on Target’s management of its data breach crisis, Fay Chen and Don W. Stacks of the University of Miami found that communications were different at different stages of the crisis (“Crisis Response Strategies, Stakeholders and News Coverage“):

  • Actions taken in the initial stage of the crisis and the statements of the CEO were instructional, yet also referred to Target as the victim.
  • In the second stage of the crisis, when additional damage was revealed, stockholders became a key target audience, and the CEO and the president of finance and retail services became the spokespeople. That set of communications focused on compensation, apology and corrective action.
  • Once the perpetrators had been identified, the strategy switched to reputation repair. At this point customers, regulators, federal authorities and other groups became the target audience, and the nature of communications shifted accordingly.

5. Cooperate and coordinate crisis responses from multiple layers in your organization.

Lindsay McCluskey of Louisiana State University studied the management of the Ebola crisis by Dallas County and the City of Dallas (“Lessons From #EbolaDallas“). She found that flaws in the communications plan revealed a lack of understanding and coordination among the various levels of government.

She argues for close cooperation and coordination across multiple levels of government. She counseled that media outlets and social media updates will be much more focused on victims—and in some cases their dogs—than on the technical details of what you want to get across.

6. Be prepared: Activists could target you for your associations with others.

Finn Frandsen and Winni Johansen of Aarhus University studied Greenpeace’s social media attack on LEGO (“LEGO, Everything Is Not Awesome“). LEGO had entered into a co-promotion contract with Shell. Shell was Greenpeace’s ultimate target, but LEGO was a more visible consumer-focused company and thus more vulnerable to attack.

The authors caution that taking brands as hostages will become a normal practice and that anyone associated with a target “bad guy” like Shell will be vulnerable. New activist practices driven by social media will force organizations to rethink their corporate responsibility to be hyper-responsive, as well as hyper-aware of the “stakeholders of their stakeholders.”

7. If your crisis involves food, consider the “social nature” of product recalls.

W. Timothy Coombs and Sherry J. Holladay of the University of Florida (“Corporate Use of Social Media During Food Product Harm Crises“) studied the use of social media during food product recalls. The FDA does not now require the use of social media during a food crisis, but the researchers recommend that it be mandatory. Currently, only about one-half of organizations incorporate social media into their communications programs:

  • 84 percent have Web pages;
  • 51 percent have Twitter accounts;
  • 61 percent have Facebook pages;
  • 51 percent have all three.

Katie Paine is CEO, publisher, consultant and founder of Paine Publishing, where a version of this article first appeared.

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