Reinventing Crisis Communications for the Social Web


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Businesses, individuals, and organizations will, from time to time, make honest mistakes or in some unfortunate cases, intentionally support unethical decisions to dissuade or conceal something significant from its public.

Whether it’s an oversight or a matter of deception, savvy companies usually employ and deploy a crises response team to prepare for, manage and attempt to positively spin the potential backlash from customers, partners, and employees related to almost anything.

Crisis communications is a branch of PR that is designed to protect and defend an individual, company, or organization, usually from a reactive response, facing a swelling public challenge to its reputation, brand, and community.

Throughout the course of history, we’ve learned that all that’s required to ignite a negative firestorm is a spark from a single voice or an organized congregation.

If a conversation takes place on the Web and you’re not there to hear or see it, did it really happen?

More often than not, we miss the very things that provide insight into a future response simply because we’re not conditioned or trained to proactively discover and diffuse threats or negative experiences.

Our weakness, however, is also our opportunity to manage and also respond to any potentially damaging or menacing public groundswell.

Conversations related to your brand, company, executives, products, and competitors take place each and every day, without our knowledge and perhaps worse, without our participation.

In the era of the Social Web, a story, and the ensuing public recruitment, rallying, and support, can rapidly spread unlike any crisis wildfire witnessed or experienced in previous generations.

Social Media is pervasive. At the very least, it is transforming how we communicate with each other and also how we discover and share information. As the adoption of Social Tools and applications progresses from the left to the right of the bell curve, Social Media will simply coalesce back to “the Web.” But, its migration, exploration, experimentation, and education will only contribute to its significance and resilience and ultimately change behavior and expand the infrastructure for corporate communications in the process. Regardless of genre, the sum of all social channels today equate to a powerful, influential, and revolutionary archetype for exposing and diffusing public opinion.

Perception is formed through the unique, individually-filtered experiences we each bring to the table. In that regard, our brand, and more specifically, our actions are open to public interpretation, support, and dissection. It’s what you say about you, what they hear, how they share that story, and how you weave that insight into future product and service iterations, communications, corporate infrastructure, and public conversations.

The tools and platforms available today are sophisticated, evolved, and designed for social distribution and redistribution. The Social Web forces a new level of understanding and participation in order for all communications professionals, in addition to crises response and reputation management teams, to understand its dynamics and the prevalence of information, positive, neutral, and especially negative.

To date, crisis communications and reputation management were relegated as a reactive response, while the groundwork for a potential predicament and the development of strategic communique is among the best practices for proactive crisis planning.

The traditional crisis communications planning and response workflow:

- Crisis Planning
- Negative Groundswell
- Crisis Response
- Public Relations
- Assessment/Monitoring

In the Social Web, I propose that many, if not a majority of potential crises are now avoidable through proactive listening, engagement, response, conversation, humbleness, and transparency (repeat).

I’d like to introduce you to an old, but new again, dynamic process to integrate into the existing corporate communications and marketing workflow. Today’s social tools and communities that can work against us, can also work with us, when proactively managed and embraced with an open mind, sincere intent, and genuine participation.

- Active
- Listening
- Observation
- Conversation
- Learning
- Planning
- Continued Adaptation and Engagement

The art and science of proactive listening, observation, and participation will not only inspire the creation of in touch, relevant, and poignant PR and marketing strategies, but will also dramatically reduce the potential for reactive response and crisis communications programs. Crisis communications teams can also partner with those responsible for monitoring online brand reputations (ORM – online reputation management) or vice versa, to jointly listen, respond, and incite change from within. This creates a more effective “public relations” organization.

The point is that this is about proactively diffusing visible, but not yet large-scale predicaments before they’re full-blown public crises. And, also through direct listening, engagement, and actively addressing concerns both inside and out of the organization, we’re diverting the momentum from tropical storms before they have an opportunity to form unforeseen and unanticipated hurricanes. It’s the ability to avoid a storm without knowing a storm was brewing by identifying weaknesses and opportunities as they emerge.

This is community-driven communications in its purest form which begets a community-focused and customer-centric organization.

Everything starts with openness and the ability to learn and adapt. It’s the acceptance that it doesn’t matter if the customer is always right. After all, a happy customer will share their good fortune with a group of friends and peers, but an unhappy customer will tell everybody.

Perception is everything.

For communicators, it’s our role to actively listen and translate conversations into actionable next steps. It’s not an automated process. It requires dedication and empowerment. Much of this responsibility is falling upon community managers and the new role of research librarians who are quickly acclimating to online conversations and how and where they apply to the internal decision makers, traffic coordinators, and metrics analysts. By partnering with these new, socially adept resources, Public Relations can can more accurately and genuinely participate with influencers, whether they’re media, analysts, bloggers, or tastemakers. When we step back and assess our markets, we just may find that they’re collectively one in the same.

What if you don’t yet have these roles or resources to help you listen and follow meaningful conversations? It’s not impossible for you to proactively monitor conversations and the cultures and behavior associated within each digital society in order to identify and prioritize opportunities for engagement, reform, and evolution.

Start with using free search blog search tools such as:

- blogsearch.google.com (set up Google Alerts via RSS or email)
- Technorati
- Blogpulse

As we all know, or should know, the social web extends far beyond blogs, relevant online conversations are pervasive and rampant in social networks and microforums as well. In that regard, be sure that your initial waves of search include:

- search.twitter.com
- Ning
- Facebook
- Google and Yahoo Groups
- Uservoice
- Getsatisfaction

For those with a moderate budget to evaluate dedicated SRM (social media relationship management) or ORM tools, consider:

- Trackur
- BuzzGain
- Radian6
- BuzzLogic
- BrandsEye

Search for keywords related to your business, such as the company and product name, key executives, as well as scouting discussions for the “suck” or “die” factor. This includes adding a combination of the following criteria in your search process:

- “product+sucks”
- “company+sucks”
- “die+company”
- “i+hate+company”

As the Web itself grew in pervasiveness, it also paved the way for customers to easily launch sites to vent publicly. Examples already number in the thousands, with some capturing significant public attention including starbucked.com, ihatestarbucks.com, boycottwalmart.org and againstthewal.com.

Fairwinds recently released a study that documents the power of Internet gripe sites. The Wall Street Journal explored the topic with an in-depth article, “How to Handle ‘IHateYourCompany.com,’” which explored what some companies are doing, or not doing, to protect their brands online.

In its study, FairWinds researched the Web to identify gripe sites specifically containing “sucks.com.” The study uncovered over 20,000 domains with only 2,000 ending in the phrase “stinks.com.” Of the major consumer-facing companies surveyed, only 35% own the domain name for their brand followed by the word “sucks.”

But domain names are only one of the many opportunities for customers to share their discontent, and in the new era of the two-way web, communications, customer service, and brand and reputation management teams must all work together together to actively survey the landscape to detect and diagnose negative experiences.

The Social Media and conversation landscape is a diverse universe. In order to identify a potentially dangerous asteroid on a glancing or full-blown collision course with your brand, you’ll also need a powerful telescope, or, a “Conversation Prism.”

The Conversation Prism was designed to provide a snapshot view of dialogue within mainstream and vertical social networks and communities that may be consequential to your brand. Every network provides a search box to unearth threads of discussions tied to connected keywords and inherent developments, negative or positive, that may affect the company brand and reputation.

Conversations and developing crises are probable across a multitude of online channels, including:

- Blogs and Comments
- Microcommunities aka Microforums
- Social Networks
- Lifestreams
- Customer Networks
- Groups

The ensuing conversations tied to your brand can quickly and easily amass, across multiple networks simultaneously. Don’t let those conversations fall upon deaf ears.

For the first time, we have the ability to identify and address potential crises as they surface. And not only do we have the ability to engage with people to address their grievances or discontent, we can also learn from each engagement and feed the corresponding lessons, experiences, and criticisms back into the sales, service, and product development departments to change everything for the better.

It’s the difference between simply placating customers and improving our business and products to satisfy many others who would have been potentially exposed to a potential deficiency.

Customers are among the new influencers and have the tools and platforms readily available to them in order to share their experiences and potentially incite the masses.

It’s not just about the gripes we’ve identified, it’s about the dialogue and actively and publicly addressing each issue to minimize the unforeseen eruptions from those who have yet to publish or rally others against us.

While our control has been crowd-sourced, perception management and crisis communications are ours to lead. Perception is reality and it’s our responsibility to invest in the relationships and the correlated activities that will help us cultivate and manage an industry leading, market relevant, and in-tune brand.

Listen, learn, and adapt. In the Social Web, and in the real world of business, companies will earn the relationships, and the crowd-sourced brand, they deserve.

UPDATE:

Now available as a downloadable and printable Word or PDF file at Docstoc and Scribd.

Recommended Reading on PR 2.0:
- The State of Social Media 2008
- In the Social Web, We Are All Brand Managers
- New Communication Theory & the New Roles for a New World of Marketing
- Comcast Cares and Why Your Business Should Too
- Will The Real Social Media Expert Please Stand Up?
- The Social Revolution is Our Industrial Revolution
- The Essential Guide to Social Media
- The Social Media Manifesto
- Free ebook: Customer Service, The Art of Listening and Engagement Through Social Media
- PR 2.0: Putting the Public Back in Public Relations

Crisis Communications 2.0 Series:
Where the Streets Have Names: Learning from Bono’s Facebook Dilemma
Nike, Just Do It: When a Local Story Runs Away on the Web
Apple and the iPhone Price Bomb
The Skype is Falling
Microsoft PR Sparks a Blogstorm

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ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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