Andy Warhol’s 1968 statement that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes unfortunately holds true during emergencies, which makes it a challenge when the media approaches unofficial spokespersons looking for comments. Although unofficial spokespersons have been recognized for decades and some organizations even encourage their existence to supplement corporate promotional efforts, with the rapidly expanding role of social media in emergency communications, which empowers consumer generated content on numerous online sites and encourages citizen journalism, their numbers have increased and the impact of their commentary has even greater consequence than before.
It is understandable that employees might want to contribute their own thoughts or photo images about a crisis situation. Lee Rainie with the Pew Internet and American Life Project calls cell phones the “Swiss army knives of today.” Cell phone photos have turned news consumers into news reporters as the Internet rewrites the rules of the news business.
Confusion in the Bureaucratic Pipeline
But not all members of an organization are in a position to have enough information to appropriately comment. With the stove piping of responsibilities, most staff has little idea what anyone else in the organization is doing or saying on a subject so they don’t have any appreciation for the full picture.
The danger is when this uninformed person then contributes information online or speaks with the media at an emergency scene. Because it could be unclear that this person doesn’t officially represent the organization, your well-crafted crisis communications plan could be undermined as inappropriate comments and information circle the globe through YouTube and social networking sites as well as online news media pages. A person’s 15 minutes of fame could put lives at risk, prolong a crisis and hurt your organization.
Defining the Pluto Axiom
I refer to this as the “Pluto Axiom.” When you are not kept in the loop and are sitting out on the fringes of your organization, similar to the former planet Pluto located on the outer rung of the universe where it is cold and dark, things can look distorted and you don’t get a full vision of the entire system. You may not be the appropriate person to speak on an issue, but this doesn’t stop the media and others from contacting you for comments.
All organizations have “Plutos.” Even in workplaces that have broken down the silos and created cross-organizational information sharing, there will always be some things known by only a few. But if everyone now is a communicator, how can we maintain corporate integrity and conduct strategic communications without stifling employees’ creativity?
1. Personal blogging should not be allowed to be conducted from the organization’s technology environment. Employees contributing to blogs from work resources can be traced to the workplace, obfuscating whether the blogging posts are the comments and opinions of the organization, or the individual. Official responses to blogs or other online commentary should reflect an organizational perspective from designated spokespersons only. Employees can be creative at home; and when participating on blogs during non-work hours on their own personal equipment, they should not identify themselves as employees of their organization.
2. Often, employees simply don’t know what to do or say when contacted by the media. Media relations training for all employees can help, covering both traditional and social media. Don’t limit it only for those with “communications” in their job descriptions. A successful encounter with the media for most employees will be a smooth referral to the designated spokesperson, but many need to learn how to do this since with the best of intentions, the inclination of many is to be helpful and provide as much information as possible.
3. Never embargo important information. Although this may have worked in the past with traditional media, it doesn’t work now with social media, when everyone is on a 24/7 clock and bloggers and others don’t abide by traditional journalistic ethics. Information should only be released when ready for public consumption. If you lose control of the timing you could create external “Plutos” who will prematurely release and comment on the information.
4. Carefully choose your spokespersons. Most people now have virtual identities, easily discerned by the public and media through sites like spokeo.com which track online activities and aggregate information that’s publicly available. With “online privacy” now an oxymoron, do your own online search to make sure your spokespersons are credible. You don’t want to be surprised by any online information about or by them that might make them resemble a “Pluto.”
5. If you have boards, commissions or other groups of appointed officials, strongly suggest that they adopt a philosophy of “common message, one voice” so that all direct communication with the media regarding positions or recommendations of the group comes from the group’s chairman who would serve as the designated spokesperson. The need for one voice to be heard is as important for an appointed board as it is for the parenting organization.
6. Keep employees at least as informed as the public at large. Then if, despite all your efforts, employees inappropriately comment about a situation, at least the basic information should be accurate.
Pluto’s place in the universe has now been clarified. Known as our solar system’s ninth planet for 76 years, Pluto is now seen for what it has always been—a minor object orbiting the sun. We should take measures to mitigate confusion caused by our own organizational Plutos—the employees publicly commenting on issues and events of which they have little knowledge of the facts or their organization’s involvement and strategic response.
The public and the media always ask who’s in charge during emergencies. Let’s make it easier for them to find the answer.
This article was written by Merni Fitzgerald, public affairs director for Fairfax County, VA, and will be featured in the 2008 PR News Crisis Management Guidebook. Check http://www.prnewsonline.com/store/ for updates on how to order a copy.