True story: Federal agencies raided a for-profit college’s multiple campuses.Yellow police tape surrounded the administration buildings. Uniformed agents filled moving trucks with file cabinets and computer terminals. Everything came to a stunned halt.
College administrators drafted protestations of innocence and outrage.
The college president scheduled a press con- ference. Students and faculty asked only one question: “Will classes be held tomorrow?”
The answer, posted on bulletin boards and a website: “Classes as usual tomorrow.” Plus, just as important, a phone number and a physical location where urgent personal questions could be addressed.
With that—in terms of strategic communications—order was restored.
There were other questions—Why the raid? What’s next? Are my credits still good? What about my student loan? My job placement? All of that could wait for an hour, or a day, or a week, because the most urgent “first” question had been answered. Business as usual resumed. The company eventually cleared its name.
We tell this story with some frequency these days, because we are so often besieged with assertions that crises are effectively managed (or, perhaps, can only be managed) through massive applications of social media (only a few years ago, it was massive applications of traditional news media). We don’t think so. Judiciously deployed, social media can be powerful tools. But in many circumstances, social media are more likely to cause or worsen a crisis than they are to prevent one. And once a crisis has arisen, the best remediation is likely to be very old-fashioned— direct, simple, helpful and, above all, personal.
Let’s acknowledge at the start: Social media has, for billions of us, transformed not just communications, but how we think about both information and interpersonal relations. And that transformation is far from over. We’re still figuring out what we’ve got.
As with everything else, so with crisis-management. Used judiciously, social media can sometimes forestall a crisis. Used foolishly or maliciously, social media can provoke a crisis, or turn it viral. Once a crisis does erupt, social media has considerable potential to make it bigger, uglier and faster-moving.
For example: Twitter means everyone else knows about the problem before you do. YouTube means they not only know about it, they’ve seen the unedited video. Blogs allow “citizen-journalists” to drown out mainstream media, in part because blogs come without obligations (self-imposed or otherwise) to accuracy or fairness in their reporting.
Google and Yahoo! mean every past misdeed will be retrieved for public scrutiny. Facebook means your own embarrassing statements will be out there too, along with those of family and friends. And e-mail not only helps speed all of the above on its way, it also means that your own internal communications will leak almost instantly to almost everyone. A dozen other social media can add other dimensions to the challenge.
There’s a corresponding litany of things you can do to prevent or deal with all this: Learn how and when to tweet yourself. Make and post your own videos. Hire a social-media monitoring service. Hire a search-engine-optimizer. Tell everyone to scrub their Facebook accounts. Use telephones and faxes and even snail-mail instead of e-mail. Some of this stuff works pretty well. Some of it doesn’t.
Here’s the problem: The first thing we hear generally forms our framing perception of a situation. Once formed, we see or hear everything new within the frame of that initial perception. That first perception happens very fast in our new social media environment, and, all too often, just like its predecessors in the days of traditional media (or just plain gossip), this first perception is incomplete, or distorted, or just plain wrong.
You are very unlikely to defeat a Twitter-formed perception with more Twitter. All that happens is more public visibility is given to the dispute about the first perception. To “break the frame” and allow new, more accurate per- ceptions to form requires stronger communication than what has already happened. Strength is not just strength of message—it’s also strength of communications delivery. Nothing has more impact than a real person, undiluted by media. Ideally, the person the listener trusts most would be speaking to him face-to-face with full knowledge of the listener’s personal needs and interests.
That’s not going to happen, but here are four things that can happen.
1. Go direct
Go direct to whatever audience is most involved/threat- ened/harmed/at risk. It could be customers or neighbours or employees or patients or investors or some other identi- fiable group. We realise it’s often impractical or impossible to achieve face-to-face, one-on-one communication. The closer you can get to that, the better you’ll be received, and the more you’ll be believed. In-person groups are good. Personal phone calls are pretty good. Individual e-mails are barely acceptable. Mass messaging and public pronouncements do not play well. That includes press releases and press conferences.
2. Answer the first question first
Most-involved audiences have something more at stake than “classes as usual tomorrow”— such as “is it safe to go outside?” or “do I still have a job?” or “have I lost my retire- ment savings?” but sometimes the level of concern is quite straight-forward. If there is something major at stake, give them the best answer you’ve got as quickly as you can. If the answer isn’t yet clear, it’s OK to say so—if you also say when you’ll be able to provide greater clarity. But if you don’t answer their first question first, they won’t be able to hear anything else you have to say.
3. Be short, be simple
People typically remember only three things, so make it the right three. And these days brevity is required. Twitter is 140 characters. A Bloomberg screen is about 80 words. A home-page mention may be a thumbnail photo and a caption. Nobody reads long documents. Nobody pays attention to long presentations. “We’ll be closed till Monday” is about right. So is “if this costs you anything, send us the bill.”
4. Be pre-emptively good
Actions still speak louder than words. Goodwill dies pretty quickly if left unnourished. If something is broken, fix it before you’re ordered to. If someone needs a plane ticket or a babysitter, provide one. Once you do, you’re a friend, not an enemy. Legal liability can be sorted out later.
You may ultimately need a concerted plan utilising tradi- tional or social media. But if you do right by the people who are most affected, they’ll do a lot of your commu- nicating for you. Maybe they’ll do it in person. Maybe they’ll use YouTube and Facebook. However they do it, it will be far more favourable than anything you could have done by yourself.
If you would like to discuss this article, please call Jim MacGregor or Rhonda Barnat at 212-371-5999 in New York, or Ian Campbell at 213-630-6550 in Los Angeles. Much of this material originally appeared in O’Dwyer’s Magazine, which provided our opening headline.
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