What I should have said about crisis management at our change communication event (Part 3)

After last week’s change and communication event at Hill & Knowlton I’ve been following up an answer I gave to the question: ”What do you tell internal audiences about a change program, compared to what you tell external audiences?”

My answer at the time was: tell them both the same thing. So far we’ve looked at the consistency of message argument for this, and the information security one. Today I’m going to throw the social media hat into the ring.

There’s an inevitability about change that some people won’t like it. There’s an inevitability about things we don’t like…we complain about them. Years ago we’d get our mates together down the pub, or around for scone, or any of a million ways of having a conversation, and we’d all hang around and gripe about stuff until we felt better.

Now with the internet, we can get millions of people together for a gripe and we don’t have to buy any of them a beer. Brilliant!

The problem facing change managers then is this: if any of your audiences don’t like what you have to say (and if you make any staff redundant then you’ve already got on board this particular train), then that audience has everything it needs to wage war on your organisation. And rest assured, it’s in the best interest of certain stakeholders to take advantage of that change in mood.

Here are three ways that this has already happened (probably happening right now if you really want to go looking for it – the point is it’s not like I’m giving people new ideas for how to cause you trouble):

  • Facebook groups/fan pages to save something or boycott something. Local sporting facilities are a classic example. Easily set up by an anonymous administrator, easily shared because if you’re reading this then you’re probably sitting within two metres of someone who’s on facebook already. Unlike most blogs a facebook page doesn’t need a moderator, so even if something does get pulled down by an administrator it will have already been seen.
  • Please re-tweet [insert tweet here]. Doesn’t need to be anonymous to kick it off because if support swells then the last thing you have time to do is search for that first random tweet (note this is different to issues such as that experienced by Vodafone because the tweet in that instance came from its account). If you really want to put a rocket up this kind of action, you use the please re-tweet approach to gather fans for your facebook page.
  • Form letters. Boring I know – there’s no video, there’s no social networking, and you can’t check in from your iPhone. In fact, not really “social media” on their own, but definitely a bit of retro Web 2.0. Annoyingly though, the online form letter is brilliant for capturing the “oh, it’ll only take a second” protest because it’s made as easy as humanly possible for people to participate (just click here!). Rest assured, the online form letter is designed to position your detractor’s argument in the best possible light, positioning you with only one “appropriate” course of action – usually the opposite to what you’re going to do. We’ve had clients receive thousands of these for various reasons, and unfortunately the biggest problem we usually encounter is the complete absence of any opportunity to reply. If you were writing a letter yourself, you’d usually include a return address…not usually the case for online form letters.

Regardless of the form the protest takes, the consistent problem they all raise is that of consistency, i.e. the availability of the same information to stakeholders in different audiences. Which is the point we started at.

By ensuring that common information is made available to whomever wants it, you won’t necessarily avoid criticism entirely, but you’ll be able to address it. And usually correct misinformation.

In some instances, smart use of social media will actually enhance the objectives of the change program, but you have to get it right because the footprint you make will be there for ever. Rest assured, your detractors will get it right. The only defence you have is openness, transparency, and information.

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