BAA's snow experience demonstrates the speed with which social media convey, amplify and/or distort information about an issue or crisis as it unfolds. It underscores the need for organisations to be able to manage their responses in real time.
Easy as it is to dismiss Twitter as a limited circular among audiences whose opinion is already set, the fact is the relationships between social media are porous and expansive, and an item that initially appears before a restricted audience can easily increase its exposure exponentially.
Like most consultants, we urge our clients to be prepared. We research their risks and we help them manage against them through planning, training and real-time issues management.
We examine a client's online vulnerabilities and we train them to neutralise a situation through multi-channel response mechanisms. In today's environment, this no longer means just advising on message formulation. It also means developing the content in the form of copy, video or rich media and controlling the speed, reach and impact of digital.
Many organisations still suffer from an inadequate online presence or lack digital preparedness, the pain of which is felt in a crisis. Readiness is often half the battle. Having a dark site ready is wise, but this is just one aspect of the digital arsenal. In addition, the client needs to own the digital channels, have earned an existing audience and be at the ready with content.
Organisations must now realise that they are also broadcasters. The web provides an unparalleled opportunity for companies and others to be proactive, or at least immediately reactive, to put a human face on a problem and show it is being addressed.
It makes it far easier for CEOs to demonstrate their leadership without those awful moments of the past when CEOs were AWOL just when they should have been a reassuring presence. Similarly, if they are not around for comment, they must realise that there is an unforgiving audience who will be quick to judge.
One thing everyone recognises in social media is the sheer speed. For some large, traditionally organised firms, this remains a dramatic and dangerous problem. They are not geared to speedy comms. They have processes and those processes must be followed. Yet the four minutes between tweet and primetime are not catered for by such processes. We suggested incorporating a social media element in a crisis simulation for one such company only to be told there was no point, as their processes would not allow them to address social media quickly; it would not just take more than four minutes, it would take 24 hours.
When processes are that crippling, it is actually no longer just a comms challenge, it is an operational risk.
In addition to speed, tone is vital. It has to be genuine, it must be engaging and, while it is sensible to conciliate where possible, there are times when it is vital to correct misinformation and stand firm on positions already taken. Writing things for the record is not enough. Social media are precisely that - social. So comms need to engage an audience and be believable, whether or not they are popular.
Digital comms are not a tactic. They should be part of the fabric of any organisation's comms strategy, embedded across all channels. In a crisis, where opinions and emotions can change at the click of a mouse, digital can make all the difference.
VIEWS IN BRIEF
Which crisis did you learn the most from working on?
Crises are so varied they teach different things. 9/11 brought home the magnitude of tragedy and showed how valued comms are by those who receive the information, action and consolation they need. Major product recalls, failures in workplace safety and serious environmental infractions show the importance of taking prompt corrective action. They all underscore the need to communicate consistently and urgently across all channels.
What were the most important lessons?
You will be judged less on what happened and more on what you did to address the issue.