Sunday, 4 March 2012

A million lenses

Quick, transparent PR response to a crisis or issue has always been an expectation and a basic tenet of good issues management. However, as the social media era progresses and the rate at which information is shared increases, expectations of PR's response have increased too.

There is significant proof of the damage that can be done to a company's reputation through social media channels. A classic example is the following video that was made in 2009 by the Canadian band 'Sons of Maxwell'. The band created this in response to United Airlines' treatment of their gear and complaint.

This video has since garnered over 11.5 million views on YouTube in addition to lots of press attention. The combination of humour and creativity made it a perfect candidate to go viral within days, and left United Airlines scrambling to save face. It certainly demonstrated the ability of social media to give a powerful megaphone to the customer, and the speed it has to reach an enormous audience

With more and more people using Smartphones and devices capable of recording video at any moment, transparency becomes even more necessary than ever for PR practitioners. Any attempt to obfuscate can quickly be disproven by 'citizen journalism'.

Take, for example, the video footage that was filmed by passengers aboard the Costa Concordia in the hours after they were instructed to evacuate.

Even five years ago there simply would not have been the volume of footage of this incident that there is today. It has become the norm, perhaps even the expectation, that we will be able to see events like this unfold from the perspective of the people who went through it.

Another example of the influence of citizen journalism is the large quantity of images and video that were captured during the riots in Vancouver following last game of the Stanley Cup Finals. Police came to rely heavily on these photos, videos and facebook pages in order to identify vandals and make arrests.

What these examples show is that there is mounting pressure for PR to stay ahead of the technology and respond quickly to situations that could flame up out of control. However, are we exchanging immediacy for thoughtfulness? Is there potential to do more harm than good by reacting instantaneously without having time to consider strategies and tactics?

In my opinion, it is of utmost importance for PR reps to be as proactive as possible in social media so that relationships are created and maintained online as equally as they are offline. In doing so, credibility and trust are built in this ever-changing realm, which will equip the organization to face any future issue.


  1. It is my believe that you are right. Instantaneous need for communication has sometimes been a result of lack of strategies and tactics. Therefore any crisis communication plan there always be a convergent media part included, since nowadays this has become a means of communication.
    Use of online social media is an emerged, significant and often accurate form of public participation and backchannel communications. This means that any crisis plan should consider and manage to understand how its publics will react, as you said by creating and maintaining online relationships.

    1. I like your mention of integrating convergent media into the crisis communication plan. This step definitely can not be omitted from the planning phase - it bears the potential for too much volatility to be overlooked. I'd be interested in seeing a crisis communication plan that really has a solid convergent media response.

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  3. Although publics may want instantaneous communication and PR practitioners need to provide information, the basic steps of crisis communication apply even in this era of social media. According to Ronald D. Smith in his book Strategic Planning for Public Relations, one of the six strategic principles of crisis management is quick response.

    However, the content of this response is subject to the judgement of the PR person. Depending on the situation, the response can include an apology and/or early assessment of the situation along with a promise to investigate thoroughly and give more information as it comes to hand. That way, publics receive some information but the PR practitioner does not provide details which may be incorrect or premature.

    It is understandable that PR people or companies will want to respond immediately in the event of a crisis but it's best to give a comprehensive response only after adequate planning.

    1. I agree, Natasha. There are ways to ensure publics receive accurate information and an immediate response by conceding that not all details are known. Better to acknowledge this than to pretend to have all the answers right away and distribute false information.

  4. As you say citizen journalism is becoming more and more of an issue for communications practitioners and it has augmented the need for organisations to ensure that they have a comprehensive crisis management strategy in place. I completely agree that the need to be proactive rather than reactive is essential. Convergent media demand a rapid response which is only possible if it has been reasoned before the crisis occurs. Otherwise you risk doing more damage than good. The Costa Concordia incident is a fantastic example of citizen journalism forcing transparency and honesty out of those in positions of authority. There were many attempts made to obscure the truth which were rendered futile by the intelligent use of convergent media.

    Clay Shirky gave a really interesting talk about the power of citizen media in 2009. He gives an example of how the people of the Zhejiang province in China used convergent media to report an earthquake as it was happening. He explains how the BBC found out about the quake from twitter as it was announced there before the US Geological survey had anything online. His most interesting point is that the last time China experienced an earthquake of that magnitude it took the Government three months to admit that it had happened.

    Both these examples illustrate how convergent media have shifted the balance of power completely, which, as you say, has huge implications for the PR and PA practitioner.

    1. Thank-you for your comment, Clare, and the link to Shirky's Ted Talk. It really is amazing how Twitter is frequently breaking major news, especially in areas where there has not traditionally been a transparent media or government. Shirky's ideas regarding the shift in the balance of power identify the roots of what PR faces in today's society.