As someone who currently works in Corporate Online Marketing at New Media Strategies, but has a history of working in politics and non-profits, I often see a big discrepancy how the private sector reacts to an online crisis versus the public sector. From where I sit, the key to effective crisis communications is to follow the Boy Scouts motto: “Be Prepared.”
Before creating a reactive strategy, you must have a proactive strategy so that nothing comes as a surprise. Here are a few tips to make sure the online landscape is your friend, not your foe, even when facing a PR crisis:
1. Keep your ear to the ground at all times. Listen, listen, listen.
You can’t wait until you see a herd of elephants charging at you before you decide how to react. By keeping your ear to the ground and listening carefully to the movements in your environment, you’ll be in control when the stampede hits and you won’t get run over. Essentially, this means not only checking your Google Alerts, but also knowing the influencers in your community. These influencers will be the first ones to react positively or negatively to information and share that information with their networks. RSS feeds are your friends. Make sure you are hooked up to an RSS reader such as Google Reader or Netvibes to monitor everything from Twitter to Blogs to what stories hit the front page of Digg. Even something small could lead to something big if you know the networks of the people in your ecosystem.
2. Don’t be a lurker. Engage.
It is essential not only to read the blogs and websites of the influencers in your community, but also become a frequent commenter. If you show that you are listening and make yourself a known presence, it is much more likely that if a crisis should happen that you are able to speak to the influencer and give them your side of the story.
3. Modify Your Response to Each Medium
When and if a crisis should happen, don’t send out a formalized letter of response from the President of the organization. Be creative and respond to individuals where they are talking about you. If Twitter is hosting a lot of the conversation, then you should start an account and reply to all those who are talking about you by searching for conversation on search.twitter.com. Or have a Tweetchat and invite concerned customers to talk it out with a leader in the organization. Look at other platforms to create appropriate engagement such as YouTube with a Video Response, on Facebook with a Note about the situation in an organization’s Fan Page or contact bloggers to attend a press conference and hear the facts from you.
4. Monitor the Results. Then Turn the Frown Upside Down.
While many organizations would prefer to see less conversation during a crisis, instead of more – the internet will fill in the conversation for you if you don’t have it yourself. Volume of discussion isn’t a bad thing – especially if you can turn what was a negative experience into a positive. If you get out ahead of the crisis, you could be praised for being a responsible organization willing to admit when you’ve messed up. In the day and age of the “two-way” dialogue, staying silent isn’t an option. So make sure to have an idea of how much conversation is going on in the beginning, middle and end of a crisis. Then, when the dust settles, consider seeking positive coverage for how you handled the situation. I hope this helps everyone out there who feels unsure about how to deal with crisis communications in the online space.
With a little practice and interaction online, you can turn a crisis that appears to be a steep mountain into a rolling hill. Do you have other tips in handling crisis communications?