Can You Blog Your Way out of a Crisis?

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by: Mark Rogers

I am addressing a CBI conference this week in Birmingham, UK, where the agenda is to discuss Crisis Management and digital media.

When we established Market Sentinel two years ago we thought that online monitoring and response would be a leading part of crisis management. As time has gone on and we have learnt more about crisis response, we now have a much clearer idea of what works and what does not. Onlinetools have a part to play, but they are more effective in crisis prevention and in dealing with the aftermath of a crisis than they are in managing the crisis itself.

The nature of a crisis

A crisis rarely comes out of the blue. Normally it is something which was previously an “issue” – poor earnings, a problem with a product, a safety worry – which suddenly flares up. In principle the web is a great medium for addressing such issues before they get to the crisis stage, but in practice this rarely happens (more on that below).

When such crises arise the management of a company has an imperative first to act and only then to speak. When they speak they do well to speak to the nearest mass media, radio, TV and print – ideally simultaneously. Such statements should of course be carried on the website or blogsite, but that is not the first outlet for them. Most media outlets will put the full text on their news websites in any case.

When a crisis happens the senior management of a company would naturally be well advised to monitor the response to their words. PR company Weber Shandwick recently reported that a large majority (61%) of business executives were sceptical about responding to bloggers, even if they had their facts wrong. They instead highlighted fixing the underlying problem. The communications professionals should perhaps be exercised by the response to the message, but in practice – again – their time is better spent talking personally to key stakeholders, answering questions and getting the message out.

There is, however, a huge opportunity for using the web to speak directly and in detail to smaller stakeholders where call centres can simply not cope. For example – is your laptop battery one of those which is likely to explode? Here is a link to the webpage.

The nature of the web

The web is an accretive, not a narrative medium. It helps to think of the web as a palimpsest of information, where new information does not quite efface old information, but gradually becomes more prominent, thanks to the impact of new links, new ways of looking at the old information.

Search engines react to changes in corporate reputation only slowly, as the consensus around a topic changes over time. Google indexes only part of the web, and indexes disproportionately the pages that change frequently. Often the key pages in corporate reputation management belong to influential but staid bodies like institutes of safety, or regulators, or tax authorities.

This means that it is only when the immediate firefighting of the crisis is out of the way that the web comes into its own. Perhaps the brand has sustained some damage. How much damage and from whom? Who needs persuading of the error of their information?

This is the time when the tools that could usefully have been deployed earlier, in the pre-crisis, issue management phase of the problem can be deployed. Here it is useful to benchmark corporate reputation in relation to an issue, to identify key stakeholders who need to be communicated with, on or offline, to monitor those stakeholders, to analyse their own networks of influence and to work at understanding how knowledge flows through the group.

So, I am in the lucky position of not having a crisis on my hands, what should I do? First: write down the issues that might become crises; second; note what I am doing to keep an eye on them from a communications perspective; third: ensure that I know who the key authorities are in relation to these issues. Understand them, listen to them, monitor them. When they start talking about these issues, you know that the issue has moved one step closer to becoming a crisis, but you also know where to address news of your response.

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