It was not too long ago that comms directors planned their crisis strategies around the evening news bulletins and the next day's papers.
But now news organisations big and small are using their websites as the first channel for breaking news. The web is also becoming the single most important communications tool for PR professionals looking to refute stories or protect reputations.
Ease of access to the internet means TV crews do not have to be mobilised before the effects of train crashes, oil spills and terrorist attacks can be viewed by millions.
This has huge implications for the way in which organisations prepare for and respond to crises. It is now easier for a story to run away from a company's ability to manage it. ‘When a crisis breaks it is pretty likely that more people are sitting in front of a computer than a television,' says Alex Woolfall, head of issues and crisis management at Bell Pottinger Group.
Many clients are only just realising that the internet is replacing rolling TV news as the first port of call for people looking for a response. ‘The internet has changed the game,' says Matthew Sharp, MD of Media & Crisis Management.
‘There is more chatter out there.' Yet companies are still not on top of what is being posted about them online. ‘We have a hell of a way to go,' agrees Martin Langford, joint founder of Kissmann Langford Consulting, who is often dubbed the ‘master of disaster'.
‘I am afraid the majority of companies I witness have not got anything like the monitoring systems in place or, frankly, the culture [to do so],' he says. ‘It is a perception gap: show me the CEO who sees a piece on the front of the Financial Times that is critical of his company and yet has the same reaction to one that is published online.'
Clients with large physical assets, such as oil, aviation and shipping companies, are more likely to be up to speed, believes Regester Larkin director Tim Johnson.
‘They have robust plans and prepared material to ensure they can launch a "dark site" very quickly in response to a crisis that provides information to the media, investors, families and employees,' says Johnson.
A so-called ‘dark site' is a website that sits on a company's server but is not normally accessible to the general public. It stores news releases based around likely crises the company might have to face, leaving gaps for relevant details. In an emergency, the dark site can become live in minutes, acting as a ‘new' part of the main website, or even temporarily replacing all other information on the website.
In-depth media information can include pictures, statements, background information (such as bullet-point facts) and library footage, which should help take the heat off the press office team as journalists call.
But clearly not everyone is prepared. ‘One FTSE 250 company I know cannot access the content manager without going through an agency, which is useless,' says Jim Ensom, a consultant who runs crisis management courses for Press Association.
On the contrary, citizen journalists have created an extra need for speed in crisis response. ‘The first pictures [from an incident] have been, and will often be, from the average punter with a mobile phone,' says Phil Wardman, head of news gathering online at Sky News.
And you do not need to be a computer geek to share your damaging material, points out Emily Bell, director of digital content at The Guardian. ‘Uploading video is not quite as easy as handing a letter into your local paper but we will get to that stage in two years,' she believes.
And arguably, since user-generated content and video are the two main battlegrounds for media outlets chasing a fragmenting audience, crisis PROs can only expect their influence to grow.
The online community can also be ‘agents of coalescence' - ignore anything and before long an an issue may have snowballed into a crisis. Last summer HSBC suffered a Facebook-led revolt from students unhappy that interest-free overdrafts were being scrapped, for example.
But attempt to hoodwink the blogosphere at your peril: Edelman and Wal-Mart had their reputations shredded last year when they cooked up a folksy blog purporting to feature a couple touring Wal-Mart stores in a camper van and talking to employees.
The media have also woken up to online news threads. ‘We now have two guys working for Sky whose job it is to see what the blogosphere's talking about and we try to hook into it,' says Wardman.
Meanwhile, BBC correspondents find their own blogs useful as kite-flying exercises. Political editor Nick Robinson and business editor Robert Peston are just two of the corporation's big hitters whose blogs float ideas or rehearse arguments before incorporating replies they receive into their bulletins. ‘Comments from people give us extra information and can be used to develop journalism,' reveals head of BBC TV News, Peter Horrocks.
In an even more significant shift, Reuters is directing readers to non-Reuters blogs in areas such as sport and world news. It may not be long before its UK news site contains links to outside blogs too. ‘There is no reason why it shouldn't,' says Mark Jones, global communities editor, who oversees Reuters.co.uk and EMEA websites. ‘It is something that we are looking at.'
This means serious media outlets are not just embracing the idea of blogging; they are beginning to legitimise the blogosphere itself. So PR professionals that are not prepared to deal with stories breaking quickly online may find themselves left behind.
CASE STUDY: MEAT AND CANCER
In October 2007 the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) released a report into diet and cancer. As well as suggesting that people should limit their consumption of red meats to reduce the risk of bowel cancer, its shock conclusion was that all processed meats, such as bacon and ham, should be cut from people's diets completely. ‘There is no amount of processed meat that can be confidently shown not to increase risk,' the report said.
The Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC) had known that the WCRF report was likely to attract widespread media interest and had worked with retained agency Good Relations for several months on planning a response to the report.
Alex Woolfall, head of issues and crisis management at Bell Pottinger Group, advised the MLC on its response, a key element of which was its online comms strategy handled by Bell Pottinger's specialist digital arm Search Relations. This involved developing a bespoke website with a specific domain name separate to the main MLC site and a ‘search relations' strategy to ensure that internet users putting a range of search terms such as ‘meat and cancer' into search engines, saw a link to this on the first page of results.
When the report was issued, the media picked up the story with the processed meat recommendation as the headline. TV news footage immediately showed people making cooked breakfasts as well as sandwiches with sliced meats, resulting in a barrage of media calls to the MLC press office.
The MLC had no advance sight of the report and used rolling bulletins on Sky News and BBC News 24 to establish its content. Chris Lamb, MLC consumer marketing manager, says: ‘It was important that we had an online platform to get the message out there quickly and a strategy to drive people to the site.'
Within an hour of the report's issue, the MLC had activated a temporary microsite meatandcancer.com, and the organisation's response to the breaking story was at the top of the page for those searching on Google. This meant the MLC was able to present a clear response and ensure that its views were easily available. Crucially, TNS data revealed bacon sales in the week after the report's release actually rose by four per cent.
CASE STUDY: DELL HELL
Technology giant Dell discovered the hard way how to manage consumer blogs
June 2005 US journalist Jeff Jarvis posted on his blog BuzzMachine a rant about Dell's customer care. Under the heading: ‘Dell lies. Dell sucks' he wrote: ‘I just got a new Dell laptop and paid a fortune for the four-year, in-home service.
The machine is a lemon and the service is a lie.' It was easy to dismiss this as the ranting of a dissatisfied customer, except that in his next post on the topic Jarvis coined the phrase ‘Dell Hell', which stuck.
Other bloggers with grievances took up the theme and linked to him while, in a textbook example of what not to do, Dell failed to join the online conversation with its own blog, called Direct2Dell, until July 2006 - over a year after Jarvis' original post.
July 2006 At around the same time Dell voluntarily recalled more than four million laptops because of problems with battery packs containing Sony cells overheating. Dell argued that this was an industry-wide problem but the issue became strongly identified with the company. During its painful learning process the computer giant introduced IdeaStorm, an online forum in which customers could suggest ways of improving Dell's customer service.
But some of that good work was undone after a separate incident, in which the website consumerist.com featured a blog entitled ‘22 Confessions of a Former Dell Sales Manager'.
Dell requested that the item be taken down, an ill-conceived move since the post was not particularly critical of the company and concentrated more on how consumers could get better deals from Dell.
The company backed down, apologising to the blogosphere for being "heavy-handed". It also allowed Jarvis to interview founder Michael Dell and post a video of the meeting online.
November 2006 A post from Dell's digital media manager Lionel Menchaca - in effect the company's chief blogger - admitted that mistakes had been made. ‘Today, we would find Jeff Jarvis' post quickly and would contact him directly to work things out,' he wrote.
September 2007 By September last year, Jarvis noted that ‘Dell Hell' was now further down Google searches on the company. That alone is a huge benefit of getting into the conversation. And in October last year, a headline in Business Week online read: ‘Jeff Jarvis: Dell learns to listen'. But it had taken a painfully long time to mollify the arch-critic.