Are we facing a new type of ‘crisis’?

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Has it already been a month since my last post?

Granted, the last few weeks have been a pretty heady mix of client education, new business development, conference speaking opps and strategy development. At the same time, the month of April was interesting for a variety of additional reasons, not least the events which transpired (Dominos, Amazon) that showcased - in my view – a transformation taking place in two areas:

  1. the changing nature and scope of certain types of crises (generated and propagated largely through social media) that organizations will increasingly face in the future, and
  2. how these new types of crises are changing the way organizations communicate – and are prepared to communicate – as a result.

So what are the common elements defining these types of crises? These aren’t the ’big’ events such as Swine Flu/H1N1, wildfires, major transportation disasters (USAirways) or instances of large-scale corporate malfeasance. They rarely involve death or injury, damage to property or large-scale economic or financial loss. Rather, these are the events taking place with increasing frequency, that start small (you remember Motrin, or any other number of questionable acts captured on video - willingly or not?), create a burst of noise (typically indignation and outrage), proliferate very quickly (largely through a defined pattern of social and traditional media amplification) but which, if managed correctly, often result in only short-term reputation damage.

Why? For two reasons:

  1. While the event itself captures the imagination of specific segments of the public – that public’s reaction is very often like witnessing the end-result of an accident on a highway: we watch in fascination as we roll past and we might talk about it immediately following, but unless certain elements of the event give it additional legs and exposure, we simply get on with our day. Likewise, and so long as we know that action is being taken (meaning the police and ambulances are either on-site or on their way), we feel comfortable that the right steps are being taken – which speaks to the second reason.
  2. Quite simply, ‘bad things do happen to good companies’ and so long as an organization acknowledges the event or incident, demonstrates empathy with those affected by it, communicates the actions being taken to mitigate it, does not try to bury it, and positions it within the appropriate context (which rarely exists online), the potential for lasting reputation damage can be mitigated. At the same time, organizations must be more prepared than ever to identify potential issues, and move quickly and visibly to respond to such crises.

Is this any different than what we counsel clients in any type of crisis? Not really. What has changed, however, is the importance of vigilance – across all media – and ensuring that you respond with sufficient confidence and speed – with the right messages, via the right channels, to the right stakeholders and influencers.

Undoubtedly, these types of crises will occur with increasing frequency – be it the result of questionable behaviour caught on camera, business decisions that outrage certain constituencies (Twitter?), or poor judgement of employees.

It’s when an organization gets its response wrong, when it sits on an issue thereby creating the perception that it either does not take the issue seriously or feels that it can brush the issue under the table, that the potential for longer term damage arises.




Agree. The rules are changing how “news” is gathered and how it is reported. In fact, when I look at media monitoring as a means to prevent or moderate a crisis, I wonder if we only have to monitor the social nets and spend less time with the traditional media.

Here’s why.

Social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and blogs are opening new doors and redefining how we get our information (crisis or not), making real journalists compete with activists for scoops (or cause-campaigns, protests, activism, etc.).

Combine those tech advances with a down economy and it will come as no surprise that reporters, especially print writers, are looking to survive downsizing by joining the ranks of bloggers, tweople and other increasingly influential social networks.

That’s not my “gut” feeling, it’s fact. Based on the latest survey from PRWeek, three-out-of-four reporters have a social network profile today, a 50% increase from last year, and 1-out-of-4 are using social networks to to research a story.

This is a major development.

Increasingly, stories (crisis or not) will burst online first…and that’s where the media monitoring will make the biggest difference in managing a client’s reputation, issue, product or cause.

In my humble opinion, of course.



Amanda Ciarmela

I would agree that we are facing a new breed of ‘crisis.’ As you noted, Brendan, these aren’t the crises that cause physical, or property harm; however, they are causing damage to reputation. This type of crisis has the potential to devastate those affected to an almost similar degree.

With the use of social media, it is becoming easier for the general public to voice opinions, generate rumors, as well as leak information that they have learned. With the coming new media devices, comes the potential to reach a larger audience on a greater scale. The degree of damage these tools can cause extend beyond the damage of spoken rumor or even direct email, as it has the potential to spread like wildfire.

With this new breed of ‘crisis,’ comes a refreshed communication plan as companies have tapped into the tools that are causing these ‘crises’ to combat them. With the rise of social media crisis comes the rise of social media defense.

In my opinion, I feel that we, in public relations, when faced with this new breed of ‘crisis,’ should depend on traditional transparency regardless of the channel we choose to address the situation with. With the development of social media channels, the tools in which to communicate public relation key messages has grown. With the challenges that we face with a new breed of ‘crisis,’ these tools are becoming the most effective, if not the most important, means to address the situations and the publics these ‘crisis’ affect.



Collective Conversation » Media Insights and Crisis Expertise » Blog Archive » Escalating a crisis, 140 characters at a time

[...] In his blog today, Head of Technology (Editorial) for Telegraph Media Group, Shane Richmond, highlights some of the issues that this phenomenon represents – particularly when you or your organisation become the subject of the conversation in the context of Twitter. [...]

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