Rise in Social Media Use During Pandemic Has Quickened Crisis Response Time

Editor’s Note: Late yesterday (Sept. 20) COVID-19 became America’s deadliest pandemic. And it shows no sign of ending. Some people are back in the office. Others are deciding where and how to work. While people are moving around more frequently than during the pandemic’s early stages, they’re still spending record time on social media.

How has this moment influenced crisis, if at all? What crises can we expect to see in the next few months? We asked Justine Griffin, principal, Rasky Partners and Edward Segal, author, Forbes columnist and principal, Edward Segal Communications. Their remarks were edited for space.]

Crisis Insider: What crises will we see in the next few months?

Justine Griffin: We’re seeing a lot of cyberattacks. And the Security Exchange Commission is cracking down on disingenuous communication around hacks and other attacks, which is how the Wall St Journal sees it.

Diversity and inclusion continues to be a very strong cause for concern, as well it should be. There was an initial race for companies to say the right thing and then a bit of blowback on those that didn’t change the way they operate.

We’ll see more cancel culture, which often is related to #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter.

We expect to see more crises and issues in energy. There’s been a fundamental shift in that the good guys now find they’re considered the bad guys.


CI: Can you give us an example?

Griffin: Look at natural gas. It was supposed to replace oil and coal [as a bridge to cleaner energy]. And now, all of a sudden, there’s this movement that says, ‘No, [natural gas] is a fossil fuel and it can be no more.’

So, people who saw themselves as environmentally responsible now are characterized as wearing the black hat. It’s come as something of a shock to them. And they need help communicating [their position].


CI: How should they do that?

Griffin: Focus on the facts.


CI: And we’ll still see a lot of crises from mismanagement?

Griffin: There’s that, right. But there’s also a failure to understand how much the rules have changed. For example, take “Jeopardy!” You could say people at the company, who have known [Mike Richards] for a number of years, might have thought, ‘Oh, he was just trying to be provocative on a podcast. Nobody’s going to care.’

They’re wrong. What you said years ago is going to count against you.

Another example is health. You’re now asking if colleagues are vaccinated. Previously, management would say, ‘Well, that’s a HIPPA issue. We’re not going to get into it.’ And you would just have to accept it. Today, you’re going to push back.

Same with charges of racism. Companies immediately want to say, ‘That’s a personnel matter. We don’t want to answer that.’

But you need to counsel that the rules have changed. You’re going to have to answer that question. If you don’t answer in the first round, you’re going to have to answer eventually.


CI: Edward, what crises are ahead?

Edward Segal: COVID- 19 has spawned so many sub-crises. It will cast a long shadow for months and years to come. It’s a self-inflicted crisis now since we’ve had the knowledge and means to end it a while ago.


CI: You mentioned ‘sub-crises.’

Segal: We have a crisis of variants. Companies are facing and have faced an HR crisis. Where do people work? How do they work?

And there’s a technology crisis. We rely on Zoom, but Zoom has its own crisis [with tech errors and privacy issues]. It’s like a Russian nesting doll…there are so many dolls here…it keeps going and going, so, the pandemic is the Energizer bunny of crisis. It keeps going and going. People aren’t used to having a crisis go on and on. There is no end in sight.

As Justine said, we’re also seeing a worsening in hacking. We don’t have to imagine how bad things are going to get. They’re going to get worse.


CI: So, what are you advising?

Segal: Strap in. It’s going to be a long ride. In crisis, the past often is prologue. Every company needs to look at its crisis and business continuity plans and prepare to respond to the absolute worst scenario, if or when it comes to pass. Failing to do that will make facing these scenarios that much more difficult.


CI: Justine, what are you advising?

Griffin: You ask a CEO, ‘What keeps you up at night?’ And it’s often the new social norms and changes, such as diversity and inclusion, issues related to #MeToo and sexism and anything COVID-related.

And then there are the issues specific to a CEO’s business.

So, for a nonprofit that deals with children, you can name the three categories that might go wrong.

The question is, do they have a plan for [when things go wrong]? For example, if someone mistreats a child, did you have systems in place [to try to prevent that]?

And if a child commits an act of violence, say against another child, were you ready for that?

For anyone who handles money, you have to worry about cybersecurity. With money, also there’s the risk of embezzlement. You want to make sure you’re able to say, ‘Well, we look at this annually. We revisit best practices.’

All of us can be a victim. But what people want to see is that you took all the right steps, conducted annual reviews of procedures and that you didn’t ignore anything.

If you did all that and you still are victimized somehow, and you communicate transparently, people will accept it.

People don’t blame a company for cybercrime, unless it didn’t do the basics to protect their vital information. Then they’re going to blame you.


Segal: I agree with Justine. There are crises specific to a sector and those that can hit anyone. So, if you build airplanes, there’s a chance one will crash.

And with general crises, as Justine mentioned, embezzlement and other accounting issues are right at the top of the list of crises that can hit any business. There’s also sexual harassment and sexual abuse, which are all too common across industries. Other HR-related and tech-related issues can strike any business.


CI: So preparation is key.

Segal: Yes. And denial is an underlying cause of so many crises that could be prevented. When people assume, ‘Well, I didn’t have a crisis today, so I won’t have one tomorrow,’ it never works out.

It’s not if, but when, and how bad [the crisis] will be. How you will handle it and how long it will take to recover.


CI: I own a company. What do you advise me to do?

Segal: First, I’d ask you: ‘Do you have a crisis management plan?’ If you don’t, get one right now.

‘If you have a crisis plan, when was the last time you updated it to account for everything that’s gone wrong in this world recently?’

And third, ‘When was the last time you practiced your plan? Do you have a crisis-management team in place that can respond immediately and is intimately familiar with the plan?’


CI: When you’re called into a crisis that’s already begun, what do you hear when you ask those questions?

Segal: I’ve never met a businessperson who could answer yes to all the [above] questions. Usually, they say, ‘Yes, we have a plan.’ Often they don’t know where it is.


CI: Justine, has the pandemic changed the way you approach crisis?

Griffin: Since everyone’s glued to social media, you have to monitor a lot more. Incoming can come from anywhere. For example, an employee is terminated for cause, but six of his friends go on social and say it was because [the company] is racist.

You have to understand these attacks can come from anywhere and you don’t have the luxury of meeting exhaustively and thinking it through. You have to anticipate and be ready to respond and defend yourself. There used to be more of a wait-and-see. You’d have more time to assess the situation. Now things move so quickly.


CI: So, prepare for criticism from anywhere and move quicker than before.

Segal: I agree. The pandemic has forced us to be more connected [on technology]. One of the victims is the news cycle. There is no longer a news cycle. It’s real time. It’s instant. It’s now. There is no such thing as a deadline to get out news. The obituary for the news cycle was written at the start of the pandemic.

If you don’t get the word out about your crisis, someone else will. Because of social media, every second you wait is going to put you behind the eight ball.

This is another reason to practice your crisis plan. You’ll be able to react quicker and know what to say and when.


CI: What errors make you cringe?

Griffin: Two things. One, when companies are obviously dodging. They’re using corporate-speak and legal language and it’s clear that they’re trying to avoid saying something. They’re not giving the audience credit. This is an intelligent audience. They see you’re parsing your words carefully. So, not only do you have a crisis, you’re viewed as not being transparent.

Companies have trouble with the combination of not being forthcoming and thinking that everyone can’t tell

The other is a lot of times, particularly with DEI, companies use tepid language. There’s a time and a place for emotion.

For example, there was a very bad case of racial profiling. And in an organization’s first draft condemning it, they said the incident was ‘unfortunate.’

Think of the language like it’s a member of your family when you write a statement. So, if your son or daughter was profiled, would you say it was ‘unfortunate’? Say, ‘We’re horrified. We can’t imagine what he went through.’

Don’t overdo it, but use the words you’d use if you actually cared about the person.


Segal: Justine has some good points. I cringe when I read about a company that covers up a crisis.

The other thing that makes me cringe is when companies lack empathy. Two magic words: ‘I’m sorry.’ They can really help put a company in a better light very quickly. But so many companies think if they say, ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I apologize’ they’ll be subject to a lawsuit. But in dozen of states they have ‘I’m Sorry’ laws. You can’t be sued if you apologize for what you did in connection with a crisis.

Of course, consult with your attorney before you say anything. But, find ways to be empathetic immediately.