In today’s highly frenetic communications environment, a single event, even a rumor, can be a crisis flashpoint, while a story that was once manageable can take on a life of its own. Investment guru and Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffett famously said, “It can take 20 years to build a reputation and only five minutes to ruin it.” But in the current climate, five minutes is a luxury few organizations can afford when grappling with crisis situations. Conversations are exponentially more difficult to silence, push out of the feed or redirect compared with just a few years ago.
The public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for information and its demand for full transparency and accountability drive these wildfires out of control. How various issues (political, cultural, economic) come to public attention must also be considered.
Rather than a single mass event or announcement, issues are now brought to the public’s attention on a succession of critical nano moments. Each node of the discussion is important on its own because of its ability to accelerate and alter the trajectory of the conversation. These nano moments gain momentum “in the now” and mass at epic speed. The crises that emerge from them are both more kinetic and chaotic than crises managed earlier this decade.
This reality has fundamentally changed how communicators must plan for—and respond to—crises.
At the root of this change is a requisite mindset shift from one that prioritizes rapid response to one that demands constant vigilance and preparedness, where the chaos is not just contained and controlled, but mastered.
To master the moments that define crisis communications today, PR managers must develop a strategy to match.
First, it is no longer sufficient to track reputation in siloed and sporadic ways.
Benchmarking and ongoing quantitative tracking of reputational measures via public opinion polls must replace annual and biannual tracking instruments. A constant pulse must be kept on public opinions and behaviors at both the brand and category levels.
This broad attitude and behavior tracking must then be supplemented by consistent monitoring of both social media conversations and the evolution of stories and issues that have the potential to metastasize into full-blown crises.
In short, the nature of the crises may make less of a difference than reason might suggest; our highly connected world can be the cause of the crisis, not just the promoter.
In addition to rethinking how (and how often) we monitor for potential issues, how we organize to effectively manage crisis situations must also evolve. Issues management expertise is no longer sufficient to succeed in this environment.
Rather, three complementary areas of expertise must be brought to bear: crisis expertise, social media behavioral understanding and technical acumen.
• Core crises expertise. The fundamentals haven’t changed. PR managers need the expertise and mindset necessary to manage the narrative and messaging strategy during times of tremendous stress and uncertainty.
• Social media behavioral understanding. The ability to comprehend social platforms—knowing what works and what does not—and track the evolution of stories across all the new channels.
• Technical acumen. Being responsible for identifying and setting up the tools and technologies required to support conversation tracking and data mining. The technical expert is also responsible for understanding how social channel algorithms function and the tactics that can be employed to elevate controlled messages.
These areas of expertise, acting in concert, are required to quell—or capitalize on—the increasing barrage of moments that define the nature and lifecycle of crises in a digital age.
By understanding the immediacy and frenetic energy of the communications environment, companies can be ready to deploy solutions early and potentially minimize issues impact for better reputation outcomes.
Peter Duda is executive VP, co-head of global crisis and issues, and corporate Issues at Weber Shandwick. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. David Krejci is executive VP, digital at Weber Shandwick. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in the September 22, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.