Managing a Crisis Online: Heading Off a Disaster in Cyberspace


In today's 24/7 information universe, where adversity can affect--or, worse yet, pummel--the reputation of a company regardless of its office hours, mastering the art of online crisis communications is an industry imperative. Nowhere was this more evident than during the recent Wall Street meltdown, which saw the collapse of a fabled 150-year-old investment firm (Lehman Brothers), the selling off of a mainstay brokerage house (Merrill Lynch) to Bank of America and the foundering of an insurance titan (AIG), all in a single weekend. Though the grapevine buzz had grown increasingly dire prior to the now-historic weekend, many of the firms' staffers awoke to anxiety regarding their job security (or lack thereof). Clearly, the corporate communications departments at these firms were not prepared for the impact of the crisis that ensued. Had they planned more properly, perhaps the shock felt by their employees could have been eased immeasurably. Which precipitates an important question: If you are the head of your firm's corporate communications department, how do you develop an effective strategy that will manage or avoid a full-blown crisis? Or, better yet, how do you protect your firm's reputation and preempt further ruin, particularly if a disaster has already struck? Think Digital "Every single crisis media plan you have should have a digital component," says Dallas Lawrence, vice president of digital media at Levick Strategic Communications. This may sound like an obvious maxim for many communications professionals, but with social networks like Facebook boasting more than 100 million active users--and one out of four spending more time on it than watching TV--the online role of crisis communications cannot be overstressed. With that, it's important to consider the following tactics when taking crisis communications to cyberspace: Create an exposure management strategy. Don't be caught unawares by the media, the public, shareholders and your company if a crisis transpires during non-business hours. Always be prepared. Develop a plan that covers the timeline of the crisis, from beginning to end. Regain public trust. Seek forgiveness. Use candor, empathy and sincerity when you make your apologies and desires for restitution, advises Jim Lukaszewski, CEO of the Lukaszewski Group. Don't be glib or use canned, trite responses. The public will see through it. Have a "dark site" strategy in place. Dark sites are dormant online media rooms that get activated when a crisis occurs. Typical dark site content includes blogs, contrast analysis, corrections and clarifications, overview and site map--just like a regular Web site. Dark sites are designed to provide a response to the crisis situation. Be transparent. Provide information when you get it. If you are holding back and it's discovered, you will risk damaging your reputation (or what's left of it as a result of the crisis). To shape and monitor messaging, incorporate social media tools (i.e. Twitter) into your crisis communications planning. "The most useful aspect of Twitter [the micro- blogging service that allows its users to send and read other posts of up to 140 characters in length] is knowing what is being said about your brand," says Lawrence. Also check out resources, such as http://www.bulletproof.com, to see what people are saying about your company in the blogosphere. Acknowledge the obvious. This is not the time to be coy or evasive. When communicating with the media and the public during a crisis situation, it's important that you answer the tough emotional questions; correct and clarify the record; focus the conversation; solicit questions; and communicate intentions. Include a "Dear So and So" page on your Web site. This is a page where an employee or consumer can address a concern/fear/question he/she may have about a company by filling out a form and then sending it off to the proper channel. Gather your intelligence intelligently. If you are surprised by the crisis, implement an aggressive surveillance/information gathering strategy. Search key names, issues, products, organizations, individuals and critics. Enlist all the staffers you can find in the search and surveillance. Optimize your company's name in search. "This is key," says Monte Lutz, vice president of digital public affairs for Edelman PR. "You have to make sure your firm is on page one in the search results." Set the stage for your recovery. As you activate your crisis plan, make sure you have a recovery scenario to play after the endgame. These tactics are also necessary to circumvent the looming threat of the online bully. This term doesn't just refer to the schoolyard villain of every child's nightmare; it's the miscreant on the Web who tries to control dialogue or stifle all possible dissent through intimidation and bluster. "When the bully or the bellyacher shows up, you're on your own," says Lukaszewski. Friends In Strategic Places "[It's important to] have a social network strategy in place before calling the lawyer," notes Lawrence, urging communicators to have a presence on social networks like Facebook. Here you can inoculate in advance by creating targeted messaging and engaging the community. An example of this is when Hasbro, maker of the iconic Scrabble board game, filed a lawsuit citing copyright infringement by a Scrabble-look-alike game, Scrabulous, which was hosted on Facebook. In response to Hasbro's suit, Facebook disabled Scrabulous for American and Canadian users "until further notice." The social network's members erupted in an uproar. Communities were formed for the purpose of denouncing Hasbro as "greedy idiots," among other unmentionable epithets. Although Facebook has apparently shut down Scrabulous permanently, there is a proverbial light at the end of the online tunnel. On Sept. 27, a site at http://www.lexulous.com opened up, with access to the old database of scrabulous.com users. Clearly, the complaints had been heard, the users were engaged and a solution offered. Citizen's Arrest In the pre-Web, video and mobile era, we might have called them amateurs. But in today's 24/7 informational world, citizen journalists are wielding more power than before thanks to easy access to video cameras and cell phones. CNN's ireport.com, its public journalism program, regularly calls for photos or amateur videos by regular citizens who have witnessed important events or met VIPs. The Huffington Post, the liberal news and commentary Web site, has also tapped into this market. Recently, it recruited large groups of citizen journalists from across the country to cover the 2008 presidential campaign. To head off a crisis online, it's incumbent to stay on atop of the communications planning at all times. Don't ignore a crisis, thinking it'll go away. "Every single blog entry is the beginning of one conversation about your brand," says Lawrence. "If you don't engage the conversation, you lose." PRN CONTACTS: Jim Lukaszewski, jel@e911.com; Dallas Lawrence, dlawrence@levick.com; Monte Lutz, monte.lutz@edelman.com

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