Are You Sure You Want to Wing It When It Comes to Crisis?

It was the kind of irony that you see in B movies, but in this case it was true. The skies opened up over Boston last Monday and unleashed a downfall of rain. By 5 p.m. ET, the city was a dark, wet mess.  That cheerful environment created a fitting backdrop for an evening session of the PRSA International Conference. The title of the breakout panel was “Going #Rogue: Losing Control of Your Social Media.” You know, when a hacker (or hackers) takes over a brand’s site for a few hours or a hacker recreates a darned good facsimile of your brand’s site.

A few hours are nothing, right? Not when a hacker can tarnish a brand’s image by, for example, sending out slanderous material from its site. Ask McDonald’s, whose site spewed racist remarks, courtesy of a hacker. Or the Girl Scouts, which had to contend with material about abortion that a hacker sent from its site. No, even a few hours with a rogue at the helm can spell a good-size headache for brands and brand communicators.

Fortunately, there are a slew of tactics and strategies communicators can deploy that can help identify and foil hackers. Many of the tactics sound similar to crisis management. They include a heavy dose of training for employees on social media guidelines. (That sounds like the extensive training your company provides regularly on crisis scenarios, right?) Yearly certification of employees was the recommendation of IBM’s global marketing exec Susan Emerick. Another was making sure dedicated staff is monitoring the social conversation about your brand. (Heck, we do that, right?)

OK, the truth is that in survey after survey, communicators indicate that only about half of brands have crisis plans in place and fewer than that conduct regular exercises to keep personnel sharp. Similarly, when Emerick and her co-presenters, professors Jamie Ward and Regina Luttrell, polled the room to see whose companies are taking steps to plan for and react to a social media takeover, few hands were raised.

Was the Weinstein Company ready for the onslaught that hit it after the Oct. 5 reports in the NY Times and the New Yorker? Unfair question, you say. No amount of PR could smooth the furor over the heinous acts against young women that the company’s co-founder allegedly perpetrated. That’s a fair point. Still, the company’s initial reactions seemed improvised, which is a nice way of saying unprepared.

OK, how about Volkswagen? It fumbled initially on dieselgate, with senior executives denying the scandal for about one week. But the VW brand continues unabated, right? Well, not exactly. Relatively quietly at the end of September the automaker announced it added provisions of nearly $3 billion in 3Q17 to the total set aside for legal issues related to dieselgate. Bloomberg estimates dieselgate has cost VW in excess of $30 billion; recall, the scandal started a bit more than one year ago. The Sept. 29 provision was a surprise. More surprises seem possible. Once a Wall Street favorite, VW’s future seems cloudy.

Wells Fargo took the same tactic as VW initially, denying there was any scandal at its culturally sound institution despite evidence that some 1 million bogus accounts were opened, some with names of unsuspecting customers affixed to them. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, usually a somber bunch, laughed at then-CEO John Stumpf’s claim of a clean house. “To what do you attribute firing thousands of employees?” was their question to Stumpf. Not long after his Hill performance Stumpf was asked to leave the bank. Allegedly he protested, but eventually relented.

One year later and the bank’s troubles continue. Its new CEO, Tim Sloan, was on Capitol Hill earlier this month. While Sloan didn’t receive the grilling his predecessor endured, the similarities the session shared with the joys of root canal seemed apparent.

What, you still don’t think planning for crisis is important?