To be an expert in crisis communications you have to move your organization
at the speed of Twitter when "it" hits the fan.
As @shroomy0021 was riding down the highway, he noticed flames from a
natural gas explosion in California. Within minutes he posted a video to
In short order, a barrage came from journalists asking to use the video. Do
you really want someone known as @shroomy0021 managing your corporate
communications? Until the company fills the void with accurate information,
@shroomy0021 is the spokesperson for the event.
Meanwhile, near my home, a massive chemical plant explosion killed two
people and injured 114. As employees ran for safety, one stopped to take a
photo of the fireball, then sat in his Ford F150 and created a Facebook
page. The page had more than 4,000 "likes" within about three-and-a-half
hours—it was that long before the company issued its first public statement
via their website.
Social media is your competition. Who is winning that competition? Are you
even in the game?
How long does it take your organization to send out your first official
public statement or news release when a crisis happens? One hour, two
hours, three hours—or even longer?
If you still live in the dark ages—in which you write a news release from
scratch, then send it up the chain of command for approvals and changes,
then take it back for rewrites, then send it for a final approval, and then
you disseminate the information to the world—you have a lot of work to do.
[WHITE PAPER: Keep your cool in a crisis with these 13 tips]
That archaic process usually takes several hours. By then, eyewitnesses on
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other sites have been telling their
version of your story. With greater frequency, they are also broadcasting
your crisis live on Facebook or Periscope.
During a recent shooting in which a sniper killed three police officers in
Baton Rouge on a Sunday morning, one person was broadcasting the event on
Facebook Live while another eyewitness was live on Periscope. It was
five-and-a-half hours before a news conference was held. In what world is
that acceptable? Meanwhile, social media posts from the affected police
agencies were weak and sporadic, as were attempts to post statements to
their official websites.
What are the tasks you must accomplish to leave the dark ages?
First, make sure your executives know more about social media than just the
names of the platforms. If your leaders have never spent time on social
media, they are ill prepared to comprehend its speed, nuance and
complexities. Hence, any decision they make regarding the crisis and the
communications around it will be flawed. At a minimum, put all your leaders
on Facebook for a week and require them to be active and engaged for 30
minutes a day for seven days. After that, they can shut down their
profiles, but at least they will have experienced it, which will lead to
Second, review your crisis communications plan and make sure it specifies
deadlines for getting messages to the world. The crisis communications
plans I write most frequently give a company one hour or less from the
flashpoint of the crisis before a public statement must be made, with the
understanding that in a world of social media, that's 59 minutes too slow.
Third, spend time on a clear sunny day writing the bones of the news
releases you will need. I have hundreds of pre-written news releases on my
computer at all times. Each is written with multiple-choice and
fill-in-the-blank options. On average, it takes 10 minutes to make the
edits and issue the release. Best of all, the leadership and legal team can
read the language on a sunny day, long before the documents will ever get
used. That way, on the day of the crisis, they will have to approve it only
for accuracy and not for language.
Fourth, put your public relations and leadership team through the paces
with a realistic, anxiety-rich drill at least once a year. Leaders can make
decisions in a tabletop format, but force the communications team to follow
and test their crisis plan in real time. Then force the leadership team to
conduct several news conferences during the drill to test their ability as
The bottom line is that your reputation and revenue erode more with each
passing second that your organization remains silent. Don't let an
eyewitness with a mobile phone destroy your organization when "it" hits the
A version of this article originally appeared on the PRSay blog.