5 principles for crisis management in the digital age

Digital and social media have changed the game. It's time to review your crisis playbook.

Is it just me, or did 2017 seem like a year full of crises? From sexual harassment to catastrophic storms and wildfires, for many organizations, the year couldn’t end too soon. No doubt many readers of this column dealt with their own issues, some that made the headlines and many that fortunately did not.

While each crisis is different, my longtime friend and colleague Jeff Hunt has published a book on crisis management that offers invaluable, yet simple, suggestions for successful crisis management in this new wild, wild west of digital media. Many of us apply these principles instinctively, but they are certainly worth a quick review and a conversation with all C-suite executives in the organizations we serve.

Jeff focuses the book on the natural vacuum that is created between the moment a crisis occurs and the time you respond. In the shift from a 24-hour news cycle to what he calls the "nanosecond news cycle," and in an age where everyone with a mobile phone is potentially a journalist waiting to break your news, there is a premium on speed and agility. That natural vacuum gets filled faster than ever, and organizations that aren’t prepared quickly lose control of the narrative. CEOs lose their jobs, brands lose their market value, and lives are destroyed in the blink of an eye.

Here are five key principles to keep front and center as you confront this new reality:

Be genuine and demonstrate a human touch in every brand interaction. This is more than acting with or expressing empathy. It is a strategic application of emotional intelligence, the "softer" but no less important side of communication. Because at their core, crises are emotionally charged events that require a dose of humanity, not only a shot of data. Remember: people don’t like hearing from institutions; they like real people and preferably those with the most knowledge and expertise.

In this day and age, you have to assume that everything is eventually discoverable. The vacuum will be filled either by us with the facts we want to convey, or by speculation, innuendo, and even competitors looking to exploit our crisis. Smart organizations recognize this and operate in as transparent a way as possible. Share what you can when you can.

Because the information vacuum gets filled so quickly, you must be prepared to respond quickly. If you are debating cultural issues about transparency and disclosure at this stage, the odds are you are falling behind. This compressed operating environment demands that you have much of your digital content prepared well in advance. And not just standby statements, either.

In the pre-digital era, overnight polling was often the tool we used to measure perceptions and adjust strategy, tactics, and messaging. Today, we have sophisticated listening technologies that allow us to measure the conversation about our brand in nearly real time. That means we can be more precise in our first response, and we can course-correct based on the reactions we are seeing in the moment.

Creativity in a crisis? This often draws blank stares. Some people think that’s the last time you’d want to get creative. But as Jeff points out, you have to assume you are competing with every form of media to tell your story, including those pesky camera phones held by citizen journalists. Consumers are going to go wherever they get the most authentic, timely, and rich content to help them understand the situation. So, if you’re putting out dense legal statements and press releases and the antagonists are sharing video and other forms of rich content, it’s not difficult to predict whose voice will win the day. It’s not creativity for its own sake; it’s creativity to win attention, to engage, and to persuade. Given that necessary element of speed, much of your content needs to be prepared in advance.

Digital and social media have clearly changed the game. Perhaps it’s a good time to review the playbook your organization is using to prepare and manage the next crisis.

Bob Feldman is cofounder and partner of PulsePoint Group, a digital and management consulting firm. He can be reached at bfeldman@pulsepointgroup.com.

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