Crisis, “PR disaster” or #epicfail: labels with a lot of subjective latitude in the fast-moving stream of social media opinion

When assessing this super-sized instalment of Bytes from the PR Sphere, I’m casting a line of request to keep a fishy image in mind that reeled me in oceans of time ago.

Attending a Toronto Cision client presentation on media monitoring, a senior staffer from Chicago captured our attention with a screen image of a large, loosely woven net, plus a number of fish—of varying sizes, commonplace looking and exotic—swimming into or through the mesh.

My memory of his premise: don’t deem all media “catches” equally in your analysis. Ensnaring “one [big] fish, two fish, green fish, blue fish” is superior in terms of a qualitative bite, in juxtaposition to a quantitative number of much smaller fish (e.g., capturing hundreds of innocuous little minnows that together might not even fill a bucket; ergo, very little “meat” or substance).

On the organizational menu of PR media goals, perhaps medium-sized or exotic fish are the ones you want to bring home—reeling in influential ethnic media or industry-specific publications. Those fish might prove more effective in increasing profile about an organization’s product, service or program, plus growing brand reputation and value.

The Cision fishing image became a pragmatic filter in measuring the success or not of media relations strategies and organizational profile outcomes. Building up a bank of lasting trust is significant, especially in the unfortunate event of a corporate crisis.

What does this have to do with the vicious, shark-like byte of a perceived online crisis?

Ultimately, this post’s thesis is to flip around the image and equation of “netting” the attention of larger-sized or exotic fish for measurable, qualitative PR outcomes, to a fishy-sniff-test assessment of how much weight to place on numerous schools of small fish (or medium-sized ones in relative isolation) identified as briefly nibbling away, online, at your organizational reputation.

What is the baseline for a true crisis or disaster?

Whether waking up to CBC Radio, watching a morning show and evening newscasts, reading (print or online) one or more of the four daily papers available in Toronto or online monitoring of international media and social media news feed streams, the information needs of this self-proclaimed news junkie are well served. The question is the amount of time and attention to spend—where and on what?

Monitoring media allows one to stay informed and have a worldview (local, national and global) and perspective about news, events and opinions shaping people, countries and organizations, good and bad.

Often the media is filled with crises and disasters—economic, political, social and environmental: A global financial meltdown. Starvation in Africa. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis and flooding in many parts of the world. An operational fail that impacts workers’ lives, the economy and location. Dictators and/or governments overturned, sometimes after violent protests by activists and the general populace.

These are scenarios where countries, businesses and individuals are directly affected: victims of illness, death, violence, imprisonment, displacement, environmental impact, loss of livelihood or privacy. These are true crises. Many are disasters. Most relate to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

These things almost always originate offline.

Social business reputation reality check

This column examines what, if anything, qualifies as an online-generated crisis, PR disaster or #epicfail and how much attention to pay to them. Because far too often such words are tossed out in blog posts or as YouTube comments, on Twitter and various discussion groups, related to perceived blunders or miscues in social business.

Sometimes it’s an exotic fish (maybe a tech blog) that swims around an incident, but most of the times it appears to be minnows of chatter that aggregate to pools of outrage by real or potential customers (and other stakeholders), plus the Twitterati and Facebook “Fan Page” aficionados, etc.

Does one ill-thought-out or tasteless tweet or a poorly researched/conceived Facebook ad or marketing campaign really qualify as a crisis? Check out this Econsultancy article, 14 epic social media fails, and assess how many stayed in the public consciousness—online and especially offline—for more than a few days. (The Kryptonite Evolution 200 and Dell Hell case studies are practically ancient history!) Compared to the Chilean mining crisis or BP oil eruption, did these online “disasters” even travel out of the social media pool and filter bubble? How many received extensive coverage in traditional, international media? (I can tell you that many of them didn’t migrate north to Canada.)

Most importantly, which of the 14 #epicfail scenarios affected stock prices or shareholder value, let alone have an impact on long-time brand reputation or trust?

Shark bytes or minnow nibbles?

One of the most egregious examples of a true social media “crisis” shark byte was a YouTube video from a Domino’s Pizza outlet going viral, involving two bored, 30-somethings employees working on Easter Sunday in a small mountain town In North Carolina. The phones weren’t ringing with any orders, so they decided to have some “rogue fun” (for which they were later arrested and charged).

In the words of Tim McIntyre, vice president, communications, at the Ann Arbor, Michigan head office, “Domino’s did not do this. This was done to us. And we’re fixing the problem. I’ve referenced the PRSA cover story where this quote comes from (in its flagship publication, The Strategist), numerous times to those who continue, misguidedly, to refer to this as an online “PR disaster.”

I recommend you read Domino’s delivers during crisis: The company’s step-by-step response after a vulgar video goes viral thoroughly. Share it and help to undo the conventional wisdom that Domino’s did a poor crisis communications job—much of it propagated by social media “gurus” looking for Google juice (which I characterized at the time as “online pizza ambulance chasers”). Not to forget “crisis” armchair experts who have never been in the eye of the storm or done sufficient research, but still deliver a pat “to-avoid-a-PR-disaster” Must-Do List.

The company did not have an #epicfail; it delivered a near note-perfect response in terms or contacting the appropriate authorities and frequent and honest integrated communications with applicable stakeholders. Today the company’s reputation and market share are doing just fine.

Another post with a similar viewpoint (from ) worth checking out is Real vs. Fake Social Media Crises, recently published on PRBreakfastClub.

On the other hand…

…I find all but two examples in this AdAge article, How to Tell if Your Campaign Has Hit a Social-Media Flashpoint, more a case of minnowing (sic) reactions.

Often it seems the necessity for social media “sentiment” monitoring is little more than a fear-mongering selling tactic for hybrid and social media agencies or consultants. Besides the viral vulgar video, the new-to-me exception is the Applebee’s incident. The reputation impact of mistakenly serving a child a margarita is reflected by how mainstream media jumped on it, which was augmented online by negative sentiment. Similar to Domino’s Pizza, when it comes to the possibility of the public ingesting tainted food, serving an alcoholic drink to a child raised the red flag of a potential or real crisis for this restaurant chain.

Enlisting #solopr peers to debate dealing with an online crisis

Following are compiled and abridged (lightly copy edited) extracts from the November 9, 2011, #solopr Twitter chat (see full transcript, Q3).

Defining a crisis and how to deal with it

Kellye Crane “The decision of when to react (or not) has always been a huge part of PR. Now, you just have to decide faster.”

Farida Harianawala “There’s no perfect formula for dealing with a crisis. Quite often you have to take information on hand, use common sense and run with it, including diligent, real-time monitoring on what’s being said and how it’s being amplified. It’s important to discern when to step in and minimize damage.”

Jen Zingsheim “A true crisis is something that has the potential to damage the business. Not just a logo redesign.”

Kristie Aylett, APR (two-time major crisis veteran) “Social media’s echo effect can amplify a customer gripe into a frenzy. The dilemma is that you get butchered for a slow response as you wait to get full picture or for reacting too quickly. There’s no sweet spot. My mantra has always been, ‘it’s the cover-up that gets you’.”

Fran Stephenson (veteran of numerous corporate crises) “You usually can’t label something a crisis until after it’s over! There’s nothing ‘off the shelf’” about any of the situations…ever. Having a crisis communication plan does help frame situations; I recommend every company have one in place to use as a reference.”

Davina Brewer Getting ahead of a story is smarter; better than playing catch up and damage control: Pay attention, monitor trends, have a plan in place to prevent before and protect afterward, whether it’s an employee, vendor or contractor. Yes, respond, but take into account the nature and severity of the ‘crisis.’ Overreacting can make a small problem big in a hurry.”

Lori Scribner “You can’t [entirely] ignore the social media chatter. Be responsive: people want to be heard and recognized.”

Terri Mallioux “If only more companies and people understood that, for the most part, folks are forgiving if not lied to and there’s no attempt to cover things up. Put victims and families first.”

Mustafa Stefan Dill “It’s due diligence to reach out to clients when we know of such incidents—they may not even see it as potential crisis. Monitor, listen, think before you respond (but do respond) and have a plan in place to deal with different levels of crisis. And if you have reactive client, train them to be proactive!”

John Trader “I think it starts with transparency. If you are transparent early, it tampers amplification and stymies groundswell. Many crisis situations can be avoided by including your community as part of the strategic development.”

Joy Donnell “Most clients are either proactive or reactive. Know which your client is and you’ll know how to prepare them for potential crises. Many don’t realize how much of PR is training clients. Brand consistency and consumer respect are a key part of crisis survival.”

#solopr participants discuss the legal side of many crises

Joel Don “How many have found corporate executives listen to lawyers first and/or follow the well-devised crisis plan they paid you to write? The problem during a crisis is that sometimes executives drop the plan and go visceral. It’s tough making a good legal vs. customer decision, as sometimes they collide.”

Mustafa Stefan Dill “How many PR folk work closely with the client’s legal team in a crisis mode? It seems like developing a good working relationship with the legal team would be good thing for PR pros; so much of what we do is similar.”

Kate Robins “There’s getting PR and there is listening to it. Getting through internally is half of the battle. I always work with legal during and before—it’s offense vs. defense, listening to lawyers so a company doesn’t open itself up to more trouble, such as litigation and big losses. Lawyers can help PR see what it can’t.”

Diana Conconi “In the long term a lawsuit can be less disastrous than consumer trust lost when a company doesn’t admit fault. It’s why crisis communications doesn’t always go smoothly: the lawyers and PR counsel are usually of two very different minds—it depends on who is running the show.”

John Trader “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a hybrid legal/social media employee who can talk the talk?”

Prepare and enable a corporation for an online crisis

Finally, a pointer to Jeremiah Owyang’s Corporate Communications, Disrupted, Yet More Important Than Ever Before. Although some of Altimeter Group’s assessment of what constitutes a “corporate crisis” is debatable (social media “pile-on effect” or the “ferocity” of schools of minnows alighting for a little nibble on some misguided campaign and then migrating away…?), I think Owyang’s three concluding points most noteworthy (which echo many of the thoughts of my #solopr colleagues).

This includes the concept of “enabling” business units to communicate, based on pre-set parameters put in place through governance, coordination and workflow.”

And wholehearted support for the idea of education programs at four levels—executive, social media, business stakeholders and all associates—although, as indicated in my inaugural column, my belief is that PR (reputation, value and relationship building) is best situated to lead (not own) social media.

Particularly for this Byte, Owyang’s third suggestion to proactively host “mock crises across the enterprise” has full endorsement. 

Swim through the crisis net

Work to make social media a considered and essential component of an organization’s ongoing integrated communications program, based on frequent and honest communications and engagement with stakeholders. When it comes to crisis communication in social business, it might prove the fastest way to minnow-ize a potential shark byte and “PR disaster.”

Let’s focus on the positive instead of the negative for a change. Share your examples of organizations successfully averting an #epicfail, based on their crisis management and/or longer-haul earned reputation.

More resources for a global-local context:

Judy Gombita  (3 Posts)

This monthly PR column is contributed by Judy Gombita. Judy is a Toronto-based public relations and communication management specialist, with more than 20 years of employment and executive-level volunteer board experience, primarily in the financial and lifelong learning nonprofit sectors. She is the co-editor and Canadian contributor (since 2007) to the international, collaborative blog, PR Conversations.

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