In an age of citizen broadcasting or citizen journalism, the rise of social media and forced disclosures brought about by WikiLeaks and their copycats, crisis management has moved to the forefront of most businesses’ communication strategy. And if it hasn’t yet, it should. We are on a new frontier where the smallest details about companies, their founders and employees, are at the tip of our fingertips. Companies and organizations have learned by trial and error, and whenever possible by other’s examples, how to handle crises with the entire world watching.
People across the globe have taken a vigilante approach to disseminating news. Perhaps it’s in a desire for fifteen minutes of fame, the manic drive for the frenetic energy of viral news, a distrust of traditional media or government, or something else entirely. Either way, in many cases, before reporters and camera crews can race to the scene of most extraordinary events, whether tragedy or wonder, the everyday citizen has captured the image with their phone, Ipad or other electronic device and sent it zooming to friends and family via social networks – successfully scooping the media in the initial stages of an emerging crisis.
An interesting example is the September 2010 shooting at the Discovery Channel offices in Maryland. A picture of the incident was apparently taken by an office worker peering from a window several floors above the Discovery courtyard. The photo passed from one employee to another, who posted it on Twitpic – and the world knew about it before Discovery officials could so much as discuss the first notion on how to handle the tragedy.
A virtual ocean of data is available about any given company, bringing about what some are calling forced disclosures. Reason Magazine recently opines that some companies will attempt transparency, such as Patagonia, an outdoor clothing company that allows consumers to track the impact certain items have had on the environment from design to delivery, while other companies will “…try harder not to be caught.” James J. Donnelly, an expert in crisis management, doesn’t agree with the magazine author’s proclamation that companies are only shadowy, reckless, or both. He says, “I think one other possible outcome is missing: that companies and individuals may exhibit more caution with all written, digital transmissions. It will take time, but the pendulum can swing back on this. All history is cyclical – there’s no reason to believe that our networked world will always remain as candid and open as it is today.”
Even with the ability to communicate quickly with consumers and stakeholders about events that affect them, many companies still respond dismally. Last year BP took an eternity responding with anything resembling compassion to their oil spill, resulting in a pandemic of distrust in the company and its subsidiaries. This past summer shares of Netflix fell 57 percent when the company bungled the split of its DVD and streaming plans – nearly doubling the cost of their service without so much as a letter, much less a campaign, to let the consumers know of the change in their plans. On its last breath, Blockbuster scurried to make good on Netflix’s blunder and scooped many new customers. With an observant consumer and a wealth of information, it behooves any company to be ready for crises, those unexpected and particularly those made obvious in hindsight.