In Crisis Management, Reputation

With a new year come new challenges to your company’s reputation and the plans you have for protecting it in a crisis.

Here are four boogey men lurking behind the rocks that could do some real damage to your crisis communications plans in 2017:

  • The impact of live-streaming
  • The threat of increased instances of cybersecurity issues
  • The power of high profile tweets
  • The persuasiveness of fake news.

Let’s look at each one of these to see what you can do to protect your reputation in the face of these threats.

The Impact of Live-streaming  

Today anyone anytime can be a broadcaster thanks to Facebook Live and the other apps that are likely to follow it. Remember the uproar caused by Philando Castile’s girlfriend when she used Facebook Live to live-stream the aftermath of Castile’s shooting by a police officer in July? That was just the beginning. While real-time video is not a new risk, live-streaming presents a new threat to your crisis management because of “…the perception of transparency that it gives to your stakeholders and the general public. When an incident is live-streamed, viewers watching the live-stream feel as though they’re seeing the un-edited incident through their own eyes, in real-time, which gives the perception that what they’ve witnessed is the whole story,” according to crisis management strategist Melissa Agnes in a recent article in Forbes. When you’re responding to one view of a developing situation that involves your company, this kind of exposure begs the viewer to think it’s the whole story. How do you present your side of the situation?  How quickly could you respond? And what ready resources do you have to upload your own live stream of news? As Agnes (@melissa_agnes) so aptly puts it: “If live-streaming gives the perception of transparency, how can you use this to your advantage in your crisis management and prevention? “And, I might add, having the resources on hand to quickly respond with the ability to live-stream good video. One caution here, though: live-streaming does NOT mean taping and live broadcasting an off-the-cuff response by your CEO. Few can pull that off and unless your CEO is very comfortable walking and talking on video this could come off stagey and insincere.

The Escalation of Cyber Attacks

A cyberattack is a high-risk scenario that a company needs to expect. In 2016, victims of hacking ranged from the IRS, to Wendy’s, LinkedIn and the National Payment Corporation of India. And cybersecurity experts expect that trend to escalate. Information Age predicts the hacks to morph in 2017 in several ways: Data theft that will turn into data manipulation; attackers who will target consumer devices including some of the connected objects in our homes; attackers who will become bolder, more commercial and less traceable and cyberattacks that will get more complicated and harder to beat.

Companies both big and small need to be prepared for these new and innovative attacks. And while no one can predict what novel and horrifying variation these attacks will take, you can be sure that you’ll need a crisis communications plan in place that will help preserve your reputation if and when your company becomes a victim.

That plan should include answers to these questions:

  • When and how will your communications point person be told about the breach?
  • Who will be part of the crisis response team in the event of a breach?
  • What resources will be at the disposal of the team (including a back-up if the main system is compromised)?
  • Who will be able to update the website, monitor social media and back-up the communications point person during response?

Your initial communications response to any breach must be to assure the public and those affected that you are aware of and already coping with the breach; that you take seriously their feelings of vulnerability and that you will do whatever is necessary to protect their privacy going forward. After that your priority is to keep communicating what you are doing to get to the bottom of the situation through every vehicle you have, including your website, social media and media relations. Do not overpromise, downplay consumers’ concerns or call the crisis over too soon. Demonstrate command, compassion and concern in all communications. And, above all – communicate, communicate, communicate.

Lastly, learn from every incident. Update your communication plan based on your experience. Crisis communications’ plans are never done and that’s especially relevant when it comes to the evolving creativity of cyber attackers.

The Threat of High-profile Tweets

If there’s one thing this past election has taught us it’s the impact of a tweet launched from the highest levels. One tweet, leveled by a high profile individual, can send stock prices tumbling and journalists begging for a response. When a high level individual throws down a twitter lightning bolt, we do not have the luxury of rounding up the c-suite and pondering for days over a response to it. And forget about the idea of waiting out the storm. “Companies must be able to quickly defend the decisions they make, immediately, factually and in 140 characters,” says Chicago Tribune reporter Ally Marotti, in a recent article about the impact on companies that were the targets of Donald Trump’s tweets.

In the Chicago Tribune article, B. Harlan Loeb, global chair of Edelman’s crisis and reputation risk practice, recommends that companies respond to such tweets quickly, factually and succinctly. “If a company is successful in its response, the situation will be like a snap in Snapchat: There one second and gone the next,” he says.

General Motors response to a potentially damaging Trump tweet supports Loeb’s “Snapchat Theory.” Here’s how the article puts it: “When Trump threatened via tweet on Jan. 3 to put a border tax on GM for importing the Chevrolet Cruze from Mexico, it took GM less than two hours to respond. It put out a three-sentence statement on its website that said it imports only a small number of Cruze hatchbacks from Mexico. The sedans are made at a factory near Cleveland.” Loeb pointed out that GM’s actions effectively Snapchatted the topic off the screen. The proof was in the stock market. GM’s stock fell in pre-market trading after Trump’s tweet, but when the markets closed that day it was back up. And the next day, Trump even mentioned GM at a news conference, looking forward to a time when they would build new plants or expand existing U.S. facilities.

One caution here: Timely and reputation-protecting social media responses require the knowledge and experience of seasoned PR professionals. These pros must be empowered by management to use their judgement in these time-critical situations. C-suite executives who are angered, insulted or otherwise bothered by these attacks should be kept far, far away from the keyboard. Twitter thunderbolts, once hurled, can never be retracted and live forever on the web.

The Persuasiveness of Fake News

Yet another by-product of the election was the ascendency of fake news. Wikipedia list over 50 fake news sites which it says: “…deliberately publish hoaxes and disinformation to drive web traffic inflamed by social media.” These sites include such seemingly innocuous names as “National Report”; “News Hound” and “News Examiner.”

With names like that, it’s easy to see why the web could catch fire with a fake story about a company that could cause both financial and other harm. Remember the horrible case during the election when a North Carolina man opened fire on a Washington, D.C., pizzeria because he wanted to “self-investigate” a conspiracy called “Pizzagate.” This fake news story talked about a child sex ring run by either Hilary Clinton, her campaign chief, or the owner of the pizza place. Or consider the fake news that went viral about supposed buyout in October. That sent Twitter stock up eight percent before it was proven to be false.

So what can you do if your company finds itself the target of a fake news story?

First, figure out which parts are accurate. What makes fake news believable is that it often contains a granule of truth that can be misleading for readers. “Take a red pen and mark the story up … with suggested changes and repost it to your website and social channels. Take out several advertisements on social media sites to get your company’s side of the story out. The ad needs to be as clever as the attack itself… It’s your job to help create a new narrative for the truth that is just as interesting as the lies,” Says Adele Cehrs, chief executive, Epic PR Group in an article in Risk and Compliance Journal.

I also like this advice in that same article from Leonard J. Ponzi, managing partner Reputation Inc.: “…The procedure for managing fake news includes a short and concise response that returns the news to the company’s corporate narrative. Then, communicate your response internally; employees are the front line in defending your company’s reputation. Three, over-communicate your response externally, including social and paid.”

It’s critical that your response stick to provable facts and steer clear of emotion and finger pointing. And, by all means, do not repeat any of the falsehoods in your response.  “Repeating the negative in question can add more emotional or SEO weight and may be just what the fake news authors want,” cautions Hugh Braithwaite, chief executive, Braithwaite Communications.

I end this post with a quote from that great crisis observer, Betty Davis: “Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.” And day. And week. And year.

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