31 January 2011

Why PR's ♥ Crisises: 5 things to keep in mind when screwing up

Wēijī: Crisis = Danger + Opportunity?
During our last session on contemporary theory and issues in Public Relations we discussed why PR's love a crisis. The lecture started by getting introduced to the Chinese characters of 'crisis', which is supposed to consist of the characters 'danger' and 'opportunity'. Even though this translation of the Chinese script is often misinterpreted and essentially wrong, it allows us to think what opportunities lie within crisises and issues in relation to the Public Relations industry. What happens during a crisis and where does the message go? What to keep in mind during the 'age of transparency'? Is crisis management ethical?

A crisis hits, what now?
The first thing to realize is to what extend something can be described as a crisis or issue. Obviously, a crisis can occur in virtually any area of our lives, whether it is a governmental crisis, a corporate crisis involving a product/service/CSR failure, or a personal crisis. For all these difficult areas, Public Relations practitioners come into play and help with a strong communication strategy, ensuring a controlled and manageable stream of information and messages. But then again, for a personal crisis, please do consult a professional before approaching an agency.

So what exactly happens to the organization's communication during a crisis? OgilvyPR published a great presentation which clearly describes how the message of a crisis spreads through the world of information within 24 hours.

I would still argue whether a crisis hits the search engines and editorials within 24 hours (Google's algorithm to spot news is incredible), but the point here is to understand how fast the message of a disaster spreads throughout the media world and eventually to the company's stakeholder.

So clearly, hiding the secret of a crisis is virtually impossible. Add uncategorized 'media' organizations such as WikiLeaks/OpenLeaks and we quickly see that the transparent human has quietly evolved over the past years. So when transparency is all too common these days, it is essential to handle a crisis very professionally. Some basic thoughts on what to take care of during a crisis:
  1. Communicate immediately: Whether big or small, every single company should be present on social media platforms, in order to immediately communicate to their audiences. The more they wait, the more damage they create for themselves. Act now, not tomorrow.

  2. Handle the media well (obviously): Imagine the media as a hyaena looking for flaws and victims. Together with the Web2.0 community, the media will be the first one actively looking for the damages the organization has done. In order to minimize misunderstandings, be honest to your flaws and most certainly, do not blame the consumer.

  3. Be transparent: Admit the problem, explain how it came so far and suggest a solution. Hiding errors in these times is virtually impossible, so you might as well stand for your trouble and fix it.

  4. Being prepared for a crisis: Let's hope for all organizations that a crisis will not happen, but be prepared for 'just in case'. Buying yourself into media later on or sponsoring cultural events might look good at the beginning but think what you have done and what your potential audience thinks about you engaging in such activities after a crisis hit planet information.

  5. Always comment: Whether you organize a press conference or talk to your 'Tweeps' and 'Friends' on Facebook, give them an answer they can work with. No comment = they really screwed up.
Of course there are virtually unlimited reasons and tips to have a good crisis management strategy, but I believe the five listed above are possibly the most important ones to keep in mind.

An Ethical Issue or Crisis?
When a company, brand or organization screws up, should you (and in the future me) help and steer the message truthfully to the audience that matters most to them? Is is ethically right to help a company that puts people in danger and eventually kills them? Is it OK to support suppressive regimes and put them into a good spotlight for the worldwide audience? Shouldn't all these organizations, including the tobacco and arming industry, have the right to manage their reputation and defend themselves, just as we are entitled to defend ourselves in court?

Clearly this is an ethical dilemma to many people working in the industry and the question can only be answered by the individual himself. This is a question I can't and won't answer, but fact is that in this 'hyper-transparency' environment we communicate in, it is essential to understand the power of new media and put much more focus on these channels than most companies currently do.

Below you will find an excellent presentation from Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, which discusses the role of social media during a crisis.

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