Crisis Eruption

When a Crisis Hits
It has happened: A crisis has erupted. Your organization’s crisis response team has been activated. There is no panic or chaos. Why? The organization is prepared to manage it. A solid crisis communications plan is in place. This plan is regularly updated with new information and scenarios to meet the changing landscape. Your crisis response team is sharp, and the members know their roles from the drills.
Your organization needs to take steps to immediately respond during a crisis. That means:

  1. Taking charge of the situation
  2. Understanding the circumstances
  3. Defining the problem
  4. Ranking the options
  5. Communicating.
    Think of how FedEx, McDonald’s, and the American Red Cross handled their situations.
    The challenge for any organization is to complete these steps as quickly as possible—within the first two hours of when a crisis begins, if feasible. In this age of information being provided instantly on social media, the window for crisis reaction has gotten smaller. An organization does not have the luxury of time when a crisis hits—especially when it is a social media crisis. Having a well-thought-out plan and a trained team will make a difference in this time crunch.
    When an organization activates its crisis response team, it officially begins the process of responding to the crisis. If your team is well trained, you can jump right into working on crisis. The goal of your crisis communications plan is to put in place such a well-trained team.
    Steps to Take Once a Crisis Is Happening
    You are now in information-gathering mode. You need to find out the facts of the situation at hand. The following questions need to be addressed as the team comes together:
  • What is the crisis?
  • When did the situation begin?
  • Where did it happen?
  • Why has it occurred?
  • Who is affected?
  • What are our options?
    Once your crisis response team has answered these questions, you can move on to determining the key audiences affected, communications goals, and the appropriate communication timing and channels.
    At this point, you should start to draft the key message points moving away from the holding statement and get the necessary background information and supporting documentation. Realize that as you write the same message for each channel, you will need to use a different tone for the specific audience you’re targeting. You want to convey the same message on each platform, but you do have to say it in different ways. Remember that social media is more fluid and relaxed than traditional media. It is conversational. What works in a media release won’t necessarily work on Twitter or Facebook. Remember that McDonald’s proactively translated its key message points into 140 characters each so they were ready to go at the speed of social media; the company did not go into a crisis having to draft the messages and then go through all the layers of approval.
    You need to get the designated spokesperson and content experts in place so they can be the official sources for all information during the crisis. Brief them on the situation and talking points. Prepare them for media interviews, Google+ Hangouts, AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit, or Twitter chats, and any other venues they will use to share information. You need to also respond to @’s on Twitter and to comments on Facebook.
    It is now time to begin communicating the key messages. You should provide regular updates, including written releases and appropriate interviews. Updates to social media such as Twitter and Facebook need to be happening at the same time. It is wise to start the communications process where the situation developed and then move to other platforms. Think back to the cases of FedEx, KitchenAid, and the American Red Cross successfully handling their crises. They tailored their responses to the specific platforms where the crisis had occurred.
    Taking Action Online
    The Dark Site
    Depending the magnitude of the crisis, your organization may want to create a crisis-specific URL that directs users to the organizational website, where official information is disseminated. This will make it easier for people searching for information to find your information. Depending on your industry, you may need to consider having a dark site ready to go. A dark site is a prebuilt website specifically designed for a crisis situation that can be turned on at a moment’s notice. Normally an organization’s website is there to promote the company and its services/products, and a dark site is to there to provide factual, timely information. As in the iconic TV show Dragnet, a dark site provides “just the facts, ma’am.” A dark site should contain available and confirmed facts about the situation, special instructions for those affected, what is being done, pertinent background information, contact information for public and media, and digital content such as photos and video. It can be customized based on the specific crisis. Typically, a dark site is specific to a brand; however, it is recommended to keep the design simple. Utility companies often use a dark site during major outages or natural disasters and have prepaid advertising ready to go when a situation happens.
    Sponsored Links/Posts
    Your organization might also use sponsored links in search engines or sponsored stories/posts on social media sites to get your message out to the public during a crisis. You don’t want to overuse this tactic, however, nor should you be dependent on it. And under no circumstances should you use black-hat SEO to get higher search results. Black-hat SEO is using misleading tactics to drive traffic to unintended targets that usually violate the target’s site’s terms of service and/or the law. Earn those results by being smart. People want and expect information.
    Organizational Blog
    If your company has a robust blog, then you should post updates to the blog in addition to the digital media center on your website. As discussed in Chapter 7, you should have guidelines for acceptable community behavior, and you shouldn’t censor your blog. If user comments are within the guidelines, then you shouldn’t delete them, even if you don’t like what they say. If a person or a group is behaving against those community guidelines, then you can remove their comments or you can respond to them by correcting any misinformation.
    It is within your rights to disable comments on the blog if it really makes sense to do so. It is also within your purview to not allow comments in the first place. While doing so to some extent defeats the purpose of social media to include interaction, you may not want commenting, depending on your specific situation. You need to think about what your organization wants to achieve with social media and the organizational culture. Insurance company Progressive could have saved itself a major headache if it had turned off commenting on its blog.
    It is a good idea to have available on your site RSS and sharing options, such as to post to Twitter, Facebook, email, Reddit, and so on. You want people to be able to share your content easily and help you get your message out.
    You should create a crisis-specific Twitter account as soon as a crisis happens to share information. There should be interaction between this crisis-specific Twitter account and the organization’s primary account. This may not prevent any activist or parody accounts from popping up, but it will make it harder for others to grab a “creditable” Twitter account and use it against you. You should also consider producing a response video, especially if the crisis is YouTube related.
    Remember that your website is your digital home, and all your social media paths should lead to it. Information about the crisis shouldn’t be hidden. It needs to be front and center on your website’s homepage, with a link to the page that is specifically focused on the situation. Links from social media channels should point to that specific page. People will be looking for information about the crisis, and they shouldn’t have to search around your site to find important information, especially if it is a crisis that involves public safety.
    You should keep the crisis-specific website as well as social platforms updated, and you should ensure that staff are available to interact with the public. That means 24/7 and on weekends. Trust me, crises rarely happen on Monday morning at 9 a.m.
    People will be searching the Internet for a trusted source of information. You can be that trusted source on all channels.
    While all this is happening, your mission control center should be providing the crisis response team with valuable information and insights in real time about the sentiment on all channels. The mission control center should be tracking media reports as well as social media. Tools such as Bootcamp can help you gather and oversee the communications and put them into a structured format.
    Understanding the Basics of Handling a Crisis
    Some simple do’s and don’ts apply across the board, regardless of the crisis situation or the channel, including social media.
    The following do’s apply in all crisis situations:
  • Tell the truth. This may sound like an oversimplification, but it really isn’t. It is important to tell the truth and be as transparent as you legally can. You can’t hide from a crisis today. Mobile technology and social media pretty much guarantee that.
  • Release only confirmed facts. Period. Do not speculate or even give an educated guess. Stick to your holding statements. It is okay not to be able to answer a question or address a concern. It is also okay to let people know that you don’t have an answer but will get one. Then find the answers you need and follow up.
  • Show concern and put the public first. Display empathy and caring by acknowledging people’s concerns and/or fears. It is important to be authentic here. Corporate speak will not work. Organizations need to be real and human. Robot-like behavior doesn’t fly in today’s social media culture.
  • Defuse negatives. Once you’ve acknowledged that there is a situation happening, move quickly into dispelling any misinformation and/or rumors. Misinformation and rumors spread like wildfire over social media. Using insights from your mission control center, you will be able to see trends developing based on the number of mentions and the scale of the crisis. This will allow you to tailor your responses.
  • Listen and understand what the negative commenters want. Do they want an apology? Do they want acknowledgment? Do they demand change? Respond directly to each negative commenter. As discussed earlier, you need to remember that each social media channel will have a different tone because different channels target different audiences. Monitor and remain silent if it is a Level 1 crisis. This is where the relationships you’ve built with communities will pay off. Often, your champions will respond for you and help fix the situation.
  • Provide newsworthy updates. Keep releasing updates on various channels. Being proactive in getting information out is important. If you leave people in the dark, they will speculate and start rumors because darkness gives the impression that there is something to hide. Because social media moves very quickly, it is okay to repeat your updates. And keep using the insights you’re getting from your mission control center to gauge the effectiveness of your key messages. You may want to explore promoted Tweets on Twitter or promoted posts on Facebook to keep your information at the forefront.
  • Remain calm. A crisis is an inflammatory situation. Emotions run high. Hostility may exist toward the organization. The slogan from a 1980s TV commercial for an antiperspirant applies here: “Never let them see you sweat.” If you remain calm, then others will, too. Keep the organization’s and your team’s responses steady and focused. It is okay to show emotion—as in concern and empathy for the situation at hand. Humans are wired for emotion. If you remain calm, then others will, too. If you show emotion and that the organization is more human than machine, the response from the public will be more positive. This is where your crisis communications drilling comes to play. If you’ve been through this before, you’ll be able to stay focused.
    Let’s return the example of the #seriouslymcdonalds hashtag mentioned in Chapter 4. McDonald’s handled this situation well. The restaurant giant’s social media team responded to the situation quickly, releasing only the facts that it was a hoax, and the company did not know who had started it. McDonald’s then transitioned into defusing negatives by reconfirming its commitment to diversity on both sides of the counter. The company kept its cool in a highly charged environment. This happened over a weekend, and the story was dead by midweek. The same thing happened with KitchenAid’s mis-tweet. The company handled it quickly and well, and the outrage was short-lived.
    The following don’ts apply in all crisis situations:
  • Don’t say “No comment.” These two words together are the kiss of death to a company’s reputation during a crisis. When people hear this phrase, they associate it with guilt and assume that the company is hiding something or that wrongdoing has occurred. And when it comes to social media, a “no comment” can also be expressed through an inactive Twitter stream or Facebook Wall—again, this is the kiss of death. It is far more productive to use to your holding statements.
  • Don’t speculate. Never, ever do this. If you don’t know the facts, say that. Use a holding statement that says something like this: “We don’t know all of the facts right now. We are currently investigating. Once we have more information, we will share it.” Speculation fuels misinformation and rumors, and you don’t want either.
  • Don’t overstate or understate. Don’t obscure facts and try to mislead. Tell it like it is. Be transparent and authentic.
  • Don’t talk “off the record.” There is no “off the record” today. Anyone, not just the media, can publish what you say. Anyone who has access to a smart phone or a computer with an Internet connection can now publish content.
  • Don’t be thrown by hostile questions or actions. Stay calm and focused on the key message points. Use the bridge technique: Acknowledge the problem and transition to your key message points. Your preparation with the anticipated scenarios and drills will help here. Don’t allow yourself to give knee-jerk responses when responding on social media.
  • Don’t place blame on someone or somewhere else. Only discuss what is going on specifically to your organization. Placing blame is a shortsighted, temporary deflection and will reflect poorly on your organization in the long run.
    The Weinergate sexting scandal offers evidence of more than one don’t in handling a social media crisis. Representative Weiner’s first response was to place the blame elsewhere, and he followed up with stalling tactics, speculation, and overstatement of the facts in his case. He eventually resigned his position in Congress in a cloud of embarrassment and became the butt of many jokes. He will forever be associated with the hashtag #weinergate.
    Understanding the Organizational Reponses to Crisis
    There is not necessarily one most appropriate organizational response to a crisis. What response is best depends on your specific situation and your organizational culture. What does apply across the board, however, is that organizations should strive to be more human, not machinelike, in their responses. Dr. W. Timothy Coombs of the University of Central Florida said that an organization’s response may vary on a continuum from being defensive to accommodative (see Table 8.1).
    Table 8.1. The Coombs Continuum of Crisis Responses

I bet that when you look at the list in Table 8.1, you can link organizations to each of the strategies shown. Keep in mind that an organization’s response could be a mixture of both defensive and accommodative. Again, it depends on the specific situation. Taking a defensive position is not always negative. For example, in a case of product tampering, it may be necessary to be defensive in the beginning and then move into a more accommodative stand.
Organizations need to move away from defensive responses and toward more accommodative responses. The interactive nature of social media is often at odds with the traditional business culture where crisis responses with defensive strategies may be a first response. Accommodative strategies emphasize reputation repair, however, defensive tactics do nothing to strengthen organizational reputation in the public’s view. Responding to a social media crisis requires accommodative strategies. Compassion, caring, connection, and truth rule on social media. Accommodative strategies allow for interaction and engagement, building relationships and dialogue outside the organization.
When to Get Outside Help
Asking for help is a sensitive subject for many professionals. There are times when outside help is needed to manage a crisis. And that is okay. It is important to put an organization’s well-being above ego in a crisis.
So when do you need to call in outside assistance? You should call in help when:

  • The impact level has started at or moved to Level 2 or above. This means you need start managing the crisis.
  • You are out of your comfort zone as a professional. Not every professional has experienced a crisis, and it is even possible to get through a career without one.
  • Your job function is to sell or manage a product. Managing a crisis requires a totally different skill set than the one you’ve developed. You need to get the right person in to help.
  • Management may not be listening to you. When this happens, it doesn’t reflect poorly on you as a professional. You may be saying and doing the right things, but upper management just may not be listening.
    An outside professional brings in a specific skill set and, more importantly, is an outsider who provides an unbiased viewpoint on the situation. This person can look at the big picture. You can visit the Public Relations Society of America’s website ( to find firms in the United States that focus on crisis communications. The International Public Relations Association ( has a good list of public relations associations worldwide.
    Wrapping Up
    When a crisis hits, your organization can be prepared to manage it by having a crisis communications plan and a prepared crisis response team in place. By keeping in the forefront the simple do’s and don’ts of crisis communications, your organization can manage a social media crisis to a positive outcome.

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