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The Blog’s New Role in Crisis Communications

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication and Technology. After a rather general and basic morning introduction to the practice of business blogging at the New Communications Forum in Napa, California, he provided an in-depth look at perhaps one of blogging’s more challenging applications: the spin and damage control aspects of PR. Can there be a balance between a business’s need for quality formal communications in a crisis situation — and the personal, informal nature of blogging?

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication and Technology. After a rather general and basic morning introduction to the practice of business blogging at the New Communications Forum in Napa, California, he provided an in-depth look at perhaps one of blogging’s more challenging applications: the spin and damage control aspects of PR. Can there be a balance between a business’s need for quality formal communications in a crisis situation — and the personal, informal nature of blogging? What follows is a partial transcript of Holtz’s session:

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Blogs have not been used much in crisis communication. “PR crisis” is a phrase that gets bandied about, but what we’re really talking about is business crisis or corporate crisis. A crisis is something that you can’t anticipate. An airplane crash is not a communications crisis. It’s a crisis, yes, but it’s not a communications crisis. That’s a drill. They have binders. They’re prepared for it.

Also, blogs don’t change the fundamental nature of a crisis. They change the basics of how we can respond to them. There are three categories of crises. A meteor crisis is what happened to Tylenol. The organization is absolutely a victim. It’s easier to deal with, but it’s still going to affect your reputation. Another type of a crisis is a predator crisis, where someone is out to get you. Whistleblowing is a predator crisis. You tend not to be too much of a victim. A lot of times, someone is revealing information about you that’s accurate. Then there’s a breakdown crisis, a failure to perform.

In crisis communications, your goals are going to be to maintain a positive image of the company, to present timely information, and to remain accessible. The standard approach to responding to a crisis is to hunker down behind closed doors. Blogs can help companies remain accessible. You also want to monitor communications channels to catch misinformation early. Ultimately, you want to survive the crisis.

There are seven stages of a crisis. The first is surprise. Management is always surprised when there’s a crisis. Then you realize there’s not enough information to know what’s going on. Management perceives that they’re losing control. The public starts to pay a lot of attention; that’s when management adopts the siege mentality. Then they adopt a short-term focus.

Why do crises escalate? The public attaches little credibility to business advocates. The public is also risk averse. The media role in a crisis is based on conflict. Advocacy groups will exploit a conflict for their own purposes whether they’re accurate in their portrayal or not. What’s most important to remember, though, is that people respond emotionally. It is not logic that is at issue. You will never win a debate in a crisis by using logical arguments. Your values count. You have to reaffirm your values in a crisis.

There’s always a symbol in a crisis. For the Exxon Valdez, it was dead birds. For Enron, it was people leaving their offices with boxes. Your priorities need to be with the affected party or parties. A key example is Odwalla. The philosophy at Johnson & Johnson is that shareholders are last.

Respond quickly, accurately, professionally. Treat perceptions as fact. Acknowledgement mistakes that were made. Tailor messages with the angry public in mind. And acknowledge the other side’s concerns. Don’t confront anybody, though. That just doesn’t pay off. Take advantage of existing relationships you have.

So, why a blog in a crisis? You have the ability to offer updates instantly. You can use a human voice to accommodate the public’s emotional response. And it produces a record of your response.

The group then broke into a discussion addressing how to identify who should contribute to a business blog in a crisis, how to remain open to negative feedback and response, and how to ultimately make the negative into a positive.

I’d also like to offer some guidelines. Stay on focus. Have one author represent the organization. Make sure that posts are approved. And publish only facts, not opinions. It’s very important for companies to have blogging policies, and certainly, don’t replace your crisis communications plan with blogs. It’s got to be part of the mix.

Update: Here’s another report on the session.