When the USDA, the White House, and the mainstream media fell prey to a doctored video that claimed to give reverse racism a name - Shirley Sherrod - it underscored the need for organizations large and small to review their crisis communications plans, particularly given the speed of information flow in our digital age.
False information can become a fact, which becomes a false factual premise, which leaves you with false facts based on a false premise before you can shake the dust off that crisis communications plan you've had sitting on the shelf since, oh, the advent of cable.
The Sherrod case illustrates the number-one rule of crisis communication - don't overreact. It's a reminder of how quickly an overall brand can be attacked if a crisis isn't managed properly. It demonstrates fundamentally why managing your brand reputation risks is not a plan on the shelf. It's an ongoing process.
In the political world, this is self-evident. In the corporate world, the stakes can be even higher and, in my experience, can be more commonly overlooked. Corporations spend sizeable budgets protecting or insuring investments, capital, and employees against risk, yet rarely invest in insuring their brands and reputations.
In this new age of 24/7 media saturation and fragmentation, this may seem daunting. But it doesn't have to be. To start, reach for that dusty crisis plan, open it up, and ask yourself these seemingly unconnected questions:
When crisis hits, who sent the first tweet you must respond to?
How quickly will your response website be launched?
Who is your public face in the first 24 minutes, let alone the 24 hours, of the crisis and when was he or she last media-trained?
How will you communicate with employees to stop false rumors and leaks - and how quickly?
Asking these questions illustrates one point: communications has evolved rapidly and to manage your crisis communications you must move even faster and you can't stop.
That plan is important and, in fact, vital. So is flexibility and having seasoned professionals.
Daunting? Probably. Manageable? Absolutely. With the right plan, and a team that's prepared, you can often stop a problem from becoming a crisis - and you can manage the genuine crisis without overreacting. Hence, rule two: when you need to, execute your plan.
Anita Dunn is an MD at SKDKnickerbocker. Most recently, she served as President Obama's comms director during the 2008 campaign and in the White House.