April 2014 jpegIf you listen very carefully chances are you’ll hear the sound of a company executive letting out his or her breath after a crisis.  That rush of air is coming from someone saying to themselves (and their management) “Phew, we got through that one.  Let’s move on.”

In our experience, that is the sound of a really bad idea.  Why?  Because (in the words of that great philosopher Yogi Berra) “It ain’t over till it’s over.”  And, it ain’t over just because the phones calls and social media posts have slowed up.  It’s over when your company is no longer defined by the crisis.  Think BP.  Think Paula Deen.  Think Lance Armstrong.  These crises changed the landscape for them. The fire storms have died down, but clearly these folks are still defined by the glowing embers they left behind.   They still dominate the conversation about them even though the OMG phase is over.

Rumor, misinformation and concerns linger well past the initial response to a crisis.  And in today’s on-line world, they are even harder to capture, contain and correct.  They flourish in an environment of uncertainty.  They grow from the absence of context and concrete information.  We’re seeing a dramatic illustration of that with Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.  Spend 30 seconds on Twitter or CNN and you’ll see people without information fill in the blanks with their own theories.  Those “theories” become tweets and those tweets become news coverage.  Don’t believe me?  Check out this clip from a recent CNN newscast where they literally followed the wild-eyed conjectures of viewers’ tweets right down the rabbit hole.

Keep in mind that consumers will be considering these five questions after the initial phase of the crisis:

  • Is it true?
  • Who’s responsible?
  • Was it intentional?
  • Could it happen again?
  • What does it say about the brand?

You need to be responsive to these concerns if you want to take control of the conversation, rebuild confidence and take back your reputation.  Here’s what we suggest:

  • Monitor the conversation.  Check not only what’s being said about your company, but also about the issues the crisis presents (i.e. product safety or the escalating cost of doing business).  What are the big take-aways for you and your industry (think GM’s recent woes)?  Monitor them.   You can do that with a number of free services such as Google Alerts, HootSuite, Tweet Deck or Social Mention.  For a deeper look at the nature of the conversation, invest in such paid services as Vocus, Cision or PRNewswire. 
  • Read all comments that show up in response to stories in traditional media. These will occur within hours of the story hitting.  The most important comments will come in fast.  Read them.  Ingest them.  But don’t fight those battles in the comments’ sections.  Instead, note the concerns they suggest and use them as an outline for an Op/Ed piece.  The Editorial section of a newspaper is still a great way to get your voice heard, unencumbered.  And decision makers, especially legislators, still pay attention to this section of the newspaper.  For an Op/Ed piece to get airing in the paper, the editor of the Editorial section needs to think it’s important.  Given the pace of the news cycle today, that story’s only important as long as it’s not supplanted by another. And today, that happens fast. So, you need to submit your Op/Ed piece within 24 hours of the story breaking. 
  • Check reporters’ blogs to get a sense of the conversation.  Reporters are more likely to reflect their own opinions and those they’ve gleaned from their work in their personal blogs. 
  • Keep up-to-date on what’s going on with your own social media and respond selectively The ongoing conversation on your owned media (site and social) can present an important challenge.  Respond selectively where you can add value, compassion and useable information.  Resist the urge to respond to every tweet.  Don’t react to the tone or emotions that these comments give life to.  Aim your comments at fact correction only.  Remember the best way to counter a rumor is with the correct information.  Rumors thrive on ambiguity and lack of information.  To control them you need to get rid of these ambiguities by throwing facts at them.  The hardest rumors to control are those that are a mixture of truth and fiction.  Clarify the truth and you may be able to stamp out the fiction.  
  • Encourage private contact if someone persists in negative comments on your social media.  An off-line response gives you a chance to defuse someone who’s getting their jollies out of the attention the controversy generates.  By offering to discuss the situation through email or a Direct Message on Twitter you take the conversation out of the public sphere. 
  • Marshall your ambassadors.  Multiple voices help add credibility to your points and carry your message forward.  Involve stakeholders, opinion leaders and industry leaders in rebuilding confidence.  Be aware that they may go overboard in an attempt to defend you.  To contain their overzealousness, offer then content that clarifies your position and is attractive for sharing.  Make sure they put it in their own words.  The contents you suggest should use tight, accessible, non-jargon-esque language.  It can include tips and lists like “five things you need to know. “ You should also explicitly ask them to retweet, repost or share that content if they are comfortable with it.  
  • Monitor key phrases and tags associated with the crisis and use these terms in your communications.  Tagging comments with hash tags can help you monitor the discussion and help interested Twitter users to follow it. 
  • Pay attention to the low-tech. Don’t forget that low-tech conversations are also important.  Heed the voices that come in to your consumer hot line.  Pay attention to industry trade publications and websites as well as cocktail party chatter.  It’s conversation.  It’s everywhere.  
  • Filter the myriad of information that’s out there.  Learn to pick out what’s important and what’s clutter.  Go back to your goals for recovery.  Put your efforts into generating conversation that relates to them.  Ignore the rest. 

The bottom line is this: Crises persist after their initial impact.  The real work starts after you’ve weathered the storm.  Put your ears on.  Keep your mind open and you’ll learn what you need to begin your recovery.  Yogi was right, “It ain’t over until it’s over.”

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