Ray Rudowski
Mar 15, 2018

'We’re so screwed…': Online crisis-management myths, debunked

Social media-driven crises strike terror into the hearts of many brand marketers. But much of the panic is due to unfounded fears.

'We’re so screwed…': Online crisis-management myths, debunked

“We have a crisis,” the panicked voice on the other side cries, pleading for help.

I hear this regularly, and usually it’s linked to something the client saw online. It could be a negative post. Maybe it’s a controversial online news story. Almost always the common element is that it’s emotional and involves some type of actual or perceived injustice.  

Companies often imagine an army of angry trolls mobilising the universe against them. But one of the first things we do in our digital crisis-planning workshops is role-play the angry poster situation face-to-face and ask for feedback. The complainant in the scenario always says they’re seeking truth, answers and a fix.  

Empathy is a critical first step in understanding the nature of the outrage fueling online crises. Equally critical is debunking the five most common online crisis-management myths.

1. “We’re so screwed: Things online happen too fast and there’s no way to plan for everything."

Here’s a pro-tip: Online crisis management is the same as “traditional" crisis management. Identify stakeholders, triggers and scenarios, then plan for them.

Containment remains the goal of any crisis-communications strategy. Companies should seek ways to take conversations offline, where demands can be discussed and addressed calmly. 

One senior executive facing an online s@#tstorm was surprised when we counseled him to contact the administrator of a Facebook page that was being used to organise “victims” of his company’s poor judgement. 

He did, and in real life that angry online poster turned out to be a softspoken, reasonable individual who just wanted compensation for friends whom he felt had been wronged. Tensions eased quickly after that.

2. “The whole world is watching.”

Seeing an explosion of negative online complaints is every client’s nightmare. But...chill. We live in a multiscreen world dominated by fragmentation and personalisation of media. Understand different online personality-types like the “constant critic” and develop engagement strategies. Knowing who you’re dealing with is a first step in determining how and when to respond.

It's critical to understand the influence the outrage is actually having. For example, online calls for a boycott may not actually impact sales but could have a larger impact on recruitment or retention.

Rather than thinking the whole world is watching, a better way to think about this is that your world is watching. So get to know who’s-who.   

3. “We need to respond as quickly as possible.”

This is too simplistic. Pre-InstaGoogleTweetFace, pumping out a holding statement worked when traditional media still drove conversations and impacted public opinion. Now trolls and angry netizens scrutinize every comma and mock the slightest hint of insincerity.

A key consideration is whether responding to criticism or allegations will only make things worse.  Research and analysis of online media and platforms provides insights into what’s truly at stake in the situation.

4. “Live-streaming in a crisis is only for rockstar CEOs.”

Live-streaming provides a direct, cost-effective channel to reach your stakeholders. But companies panic when they realize they do need to respond quickly, but their CEO is not a silver-tongued smooth talker. 

Start planning and train senior management to get comfortable with the medium in good times—major announcements and launches, speaking forums, media roundtables. If you’ve established an online presence, stakeholders will forgive nervousness and be more inclined to defend you if angry trolls mock you.

5. “Our employees can’t be trusted not to post.”

Companies must remember that employees are their biggest asset in a crisis—if properly engaged. Implement a simple online code-of-conduct and trust employees to use common sense in their online behaviour during a crisis.

Fear is a crippling emotion that prevents rational decision-making. The best way to start planning for online issues is to identify the gaps in your crisis response planning. Understand that online engagement is a long-term process—not a one-off post. Finally, when faced with escalating issues, adopt the right tone and timing when responding.  


Ray Rudowski is Edelman’s regional director of crisis planning and training, based in Hong Kong.

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