Hot Potato: Crisis Communications in a Web 2.0 World

It’s the middle of the night. Your BlackBerry on the bedside table vibrates.  You focus your eyes on the caller ID. It’s your biggest client, a potato chip manufacturer. It’s pretty safe to say the CEO isn’t calling at 2:45 a.m. to say what a good job you did last week setting up Good Morning America.  Actually, it’s reasonable to assume that this is going to be bad news.

You press “answer” and through your client’s incoherent ramblings you decipher words like “Third degree burns,” “eighteen people” and “critical condition.”  Your mind whirls into action.  There’s less than four hours until the opening bell rings on Wall St. and your client’s parent company is going to lose millions in market cap. This would qualify as a crisis, right?

Amazingly, even after all the case studies have been cited ad nauseum (Tylenol, Perrier, Exxon, etc.), there are still CEOs out there who are inclined to listen to their lawyer rather than a communications or PR person at a time like this. Twenty—even 10—years ago, maybe such scurrilous behavior occasionally went rewarded, but the game-changer now is the mouse. And I don’t mean Mickey.

Once upon a time, crisis communications was straightforward. All you had to do was spoon-feed information to the media in a prompt, credible and sincere way.  This was the best and, generally, only way to impact the coverage and shape public perception.  As Bill Clinton learned, America is, indeed, a forgiving nation.  If you own up to what you did rather than cower behind lawyers and accountants, looking like the almighty buck matters more to you than the truth (or, in this case, the physical well being of others), everything will work out fine.

Now, the bigger problem is: What will ooze out online?  Make no mistake, whether fair or not, you can count on a current or past employee to seize this opportunity to Tweet, Facebook and blog their way to Warhol heaven, all while your client’s stock price is beaten to a pulp and careers evaporate.  The truth is as mercurial as genuine talent on American Idol.  What actually “is” is essentially irrelevant. All that matters is how things appear. And the Web can distort appearances faster than a fun house mirror.

So what makes any of that such a revelation for public relations professionals?  For the most part, the decision makers in a crisis situation tend to skew Boomer and early Gen X.  That will be the case for a few more years anyway.  If your experience has been anything like mine, selling clients on using Web 2.0 is a little bit like pitching Florida swampland.  Most of them recognize there is something there, but many just don’t see it as worth their time or money.  Who can blame them? Awfully hard to prove the value of our newest communications channels to the same people who lost so much money when the new media bubble burst in 2000, right?

Well, even if your client has no interest in adding social media to his/her bag of marketing tricks, best to educate them on the power of these tools before they get hammered by them during a crisis.  It will be a lot harder to convince your client to ignore the litigators and fess up to the world what happened if they don’t fully grasp just how many ways people now have to spread wildfire, accuracy be damned. 

Whatever you do—or don’t do—is now transparent and public. You can’t control this paradigm shift.  If your company really did have an accident or does something wrong, you’re not the only one who’s going to have to deal with the aftermath. Your brand is going to take a hit too. Now add the cherry on top—some guy whose 401K you’ve been contributing to, taking stabs at your brand with his Twitter bayonet. Remember, today’s online interactions will be noticed by future customers in tomorrow’s Google search.  If you don’t say something meaningful proactively, you will be backpedalling reactively. Listen to what people are saying. Become a part of the dialogue. Own up to the mistake.  Show the public and your clients that you are taking the necessary steps to fix the problem. The strange thing about human nature: People tend to recall someone who was offensive a lot less than someone who was defensive.  So roll up those monogrammed French cuffs and go on the offensive.  Before your brand goes up in smoke in the middle of the night like a charred potato chip.

David Eichler is co-founder of Phoenix’s David and Sam PR.  He sits on the board of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and his agency is a member of PR Boutiques International.