Issues management and the social Web – black and white, or shades of gray?

posted by Brendan Hodgson

I was quoted this morning in an article related to an issue pitting Dalhousie University against a Facebook group protesting the school’s use of animals for research. You can read the story here (and find additional context here). It’s an interesting piece, although I feel the need to clarify my rather “sensationalist” quote.

Without question, this imbroglio is a clear example of the changing face of crisis communications and issues management in today’s networked world. It speaks not only to the speed and efficiency by which an issue can erupt and spread – both in the media and the blogosphere – but also to the issue of what organizations can or should do to respond. My colleague, Boyd Neil, a senior crisis practitioner, has also posted his thoughts on this issue.

In a growing number of instances, issues move through the blogosphere and social networking sites so quickly that trying to respond on a one-to-one basis would be virtually impossible, and a massive drain on resources. It would be akin to playing “whack-a-mole” versus strategically targeting your communications to those audiences and influencers that really matter, be they employees, loyal customers, communities, regulators etc. Likewise, the speed by which communities spring up around such issues, as was the case with Facebook, only adds to the complexity of this new landscape that we, as communicators, face. And that was, to some degree, a key point of my quote.

Further to that point is the question of when to respond and, if a response is deemed necessary (depending on the impact of the action being taken), how. In times of crisis, timeliness is still an essential component to any communications. Increasingly, however, timeliness must also be matched by an even greater focus on credibility, transparency and authority. As the social web grows, so too will the level of misinformation and speculation, either intentional or inadvertent. And that has clear implications around how an organization should consider the response they take. 

Ultimately, an organization must first decide if the issue (if left unchecked) might ultimately impact their “business” – be it a negative impact on sales, a substantive hit to an organization’s reputation, or reduced enrollment (as in the case of Dal). Or might it, as Boyd suggest, fade into obscurity?

Secondly, it must consider the environment in which this issue is unfolding. Per my comment on Boyd’s blog earlier today, and as I noted to the reporter yesterday, the social web can often be, to a degree, self-policing. In reading the comments on the Facebook group, you see a lot of folks supporting Dal’s arguments and taking a highly critical stance against the creator of the group. Which begs the question, should the school itself should seek to participate on this forum or let the masses fight the battle for them?

Additionally, it could be argued that when the “author” or “instigator” of an issue hides behind anonymity (or a name only), or is in no real position to comment with authority (meaning, is either a spectator or does not have the appropriate perspective or knowledge to truly decipher what that person has either seen or heard), does responding lend credibility to the “instigator” where none previously existed?

Furthermore, an organization must also explore how it might, if necessary, use its own online footprint to correct misinformation, address inaccuracies, and provide clarity on the issue in question. This might include posting links to third-party accreditations of its practices, and other endorsements from credible parties. It might include photos or video tours of specific facilities accompanied by neutral observers. And, as Boyd mentioned, it might include offering doubters the opportunity to see for themselves. In doing so, you are also arming your supporters with information and content that they are then able to use in other forums.

For the most part, legal action should, as Boyd infers, be considered a last resort. At the same time, organizations need to better understand the implications of social media, particularly in times of crisis, so as not to over-react to every negative comment, but also to know when to respond to prevent an issue from having a lasting impact on their reputation or business.

1 Comment
28

Aug
2007

Boyd Neil

A far more articulate look at the issue than my post. I would only answer your question "does responding lend credibility to the "instigator" where none previously existed?" — and your implied belief that it might — with a no.

Instigators should be taking seriously not because they are credible or convincing but because they can, well, instigate and find an audience. By treating them with respect, honesty and transparency, however, you do more to undermine their credibility than by not responding.

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