Go Digital Or Go Home: Ramping Up Crisis Communications Online

When American Airlines began grounding its fleet of M-80s on April 8, 2008, due to necessary wire inspections, travelers across the country collectively grumbled--loudly--about yet another crisis in the airline industry that precipitated massive delays and nearly 3,300 flight cancellations. While the situation probably doesn't come as a surprise to many (inconveniences and air travel go together like peas and carrots), it is representative of a larger challenge for communications executives in all industries: A crisis erupts and their organization is, at least on some level, an innocent bystander, and they are left to pick up the pieces. In the case of the grounded M-80s, consider Dallas Fort Worth International Airport to be the scapegoat that fills this "innocent bystander" role: As a main hub of American Airlines, hundreds of thousands of travelers were stranded in the airport, and they were looking for someone--anyone--to blame. "Basically, from a legal standpoint, the airport doesn't have much responsibility when something [like this] happens--the airlines do," says Ken Capps, VP of public affairs for DFW International Airport. "But there's a lot of confusion in that. That said, even though we don't have a legal responsibility, we feel we do have a responsibility to help our customers, and communication is the No. 1 priority." Capps' proactive approach to being front-and-center in the midst of the recent crisis (which as since been resolved) was noble, but his team's strategy for communicating key messages applies to any organization affected by a crisis, directly or otherwise. Rule No. 1: "[During a crisis], everything is your job," Capps says. "There is no such thing as 'that's not my job.'" Rule No. 2: Go digital, or go home. That's right--digital channels are key to managing and mitigating crises, regardless of the role your organization plays in an overall debacle. But, while entire books can (and probably have been) be written on the spectrum of digital platforms and how to integrate them into crisis communications strategies, one platform in particular can make or break your success: your corporate Web site. Corporate Web sites are the go-to places for three key audiences: customers, the media and employees. Between alerts on the home page, breaking news in the online newsroom, transparent commentary from executives on the corporate blog and employee updates on an intranet, this platform is a juggernaut of information that can lead your organization through the critical hours, days and weeks after the initial fallout. Here is a checklist of the crisis-control elements all corporate sites should have: *An online newsroom: This space should be updated with the latest and greatest (or not-so-greatest) news and updates; media will swarm to the site as soon as news of a crisis hits, and there had better be something they can sink their teeth into--otherwise, that "something" will be you. After all, according to TEKgroup International's 2008 Online Newsroom Survey, 92% of surveyed journalists said that newsrooms are important "to access a crisis communications section" (see graph). With that, Chris Bechtel, VP of products and services for ipressroom, offers these online newsroom must-haves: Easy-to-find contact information for PR, customer relations and media relations execs. Images: These are especially critical during crises, as photography can lend credibility to PR messages. In DFW's case, execs took candid pictures of stranded travelers getting free coffee and food from concession stands, which were open for business throughout the night so passengers didn't go hungry. "If you can use pictures and convey something in a visual way, it's very helpful," Capps says, noting that his team sent the images to media and travel bloggers to demonstrate that the airport's efforts to ease passengers' frustrations were genuine and focused their needs. A channel for transparency (see corporate blog section). Integrated video: This ideally conveys a message from a CEO in response to a crisis, as Mattel did in the wake of massive product recalls last year. *A dark site: Consider this the dormant beast that can be awakened the moment a crisis hits. Ibrey Woodall, director of marketing/sales for TEKgroup International, points to Delta as an example of a company with a dark site whose template is preexisting and can be tweaked to report delays, etc.; once the necessary information is in place, the site can go live with very little prep time. *A corporate blog: This is the ideal "channel for transparency" that Bechtel refers to. Blogs should be updated with posts from a range of employees who can comment on different aspects of a crisis, from a junior employee to a senior executive, to a representative from the customer relations department. If possible, invite supportive stakeholders to post blog entries or comments, as these individuals will bolster the credibility of the company's position. In addition to these online assets, Capps offers these best practices for keeping customers calm (at least relatively speaking) during a crisis: Remember who your ultimate customer is, and put yourself in their shoes. Call upon vendors to help, and mobilize employees who may not be "customer-facing," but who can assist from behind the scene. Communicate "what's next" in detail, along with information that can empower the customer to take action. PRN CONTACTS: Ken Capps, kcapps@dfwairport.com; Ibrey Woodall, ibrey@tekgroup.com; Shabbir Safdar, ssafdar@virilion.com When Crises Call, Do The Twitter Bug Online newsrooms aren't the only go-to spot during crises; social networks can make you or break you too. Take Twitter, a Web application that people use to send short messages about their thoughts throughout the day from their computers or cell phones. It's like instant messaging combined with the world's largest office in/out board. Friends and colleagues "follow" each other's Twitter status, and they reply and converse. When people have complaints about products or services, they naturally gravitate there, as the short Twitter message is the perfect length to vent a frustration. This has growing crisis communications implications; conversations can percolate and rapidly dismantle a brand's reputation. Two companies (at least) have created presences on Twitter and are using them to monitor and respond to customer questions and complaints: H&R Block and Comcast. While you may not be ready to respond to public comments on Twitter, you should at least check to see who is talking about your brand there--at some point in the not-so-distant future, it may become an integral piece of your crisis communications strategy. For now, use Tweet Scan (http://www.tweetscan.com/) to search for your brand name. There are also a host of services that have opened up in the last year to monitor online commentary, including Radian6 and Scoutlabs (still in development). (Editor's Note: This article was written by Jason Alcorn and Shabbir Imber Safdar of Virilion, Inc. For more on Twitter, as well as a case study highlighting Comcast's use of the channel to handle a customer service crisis, see their story on http://www.prnewsonline.com, titled "What Comcast Can Teach You About Customer Service--Really.")

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