Gini Dietrich

Ten Steps for Managing an Online Crisis

By: Gini Dietrich | April 30, 2013 | 

Ten Steps for Managing an Online CrisisIn 2006, Wal-Mart was caught redhanded cheating its way through the Internet to receive attention.

Their PR firm hired actors to pretend they were traveling the country in an RV, visiting Wal-Mart locations as they drove, and blogging about their experience.

This was before anyone really realized how the social web works and many organizations were taking some risk to figure it out.

But in 2013? In 2013, there are many experts out there in the world who know what happens when you give a customer, an employee, or a journalist or a blogger a megaphone.

And yet.

Companies Embroiled in Scandal

Wal-Mart was once again embroiled in a scandal: This time with bribing Mexican authorities to receive permits and to do business in the country. And then again when their PR firm (a different one from 2006) posed as journalists at a news conference to try to persuade union workers to allow them to open a store in Chinatown in Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, it’s not just Wal-Mart that deals with online crisis and scandals that put them on the front page of the New York Times and every mainstream blog on the web.

Other examples abound: Applebee’s, Susan G. Komen, Penn State, Carnival Cruise Lines, and – most recently – Rutgers University.

If it seems like more and more of this is happening, it’s because it is. The web provides a way for stories like this to spread like grassfire. And it’s not good.

It used to be you’d hire a PR firm and have them write a crisis plan that was then put in the drawer and revisited only once a year. An online crisis plan wasn’t even considered.

Now? Now a crisis can erupt in mere seconds if someone has a bad experience with your organization.

Ten Steps for Managing an Online Crisis

So what happens if you end up on the front page of the newspaper?

  1. Act Swiftly. Perhaps you sell capital equipment or professional services or product packaging. Surely your organization doesn’t have any issues. In today’s digital world an employee could say something racist online. A customer could have it out for you and spread lies through their Facebook page. A competitor might engage in whisper campaigns against you. The only way to win at that game is to be prepared, have a communications expert on your team (or have one on speed dial), and act swiftly. Not in a week, not in a month, not in three months. In the same day.
  2. Address the problem. It’s not fun having to come out and say you screwed up or something bad has happened or you made a mistake. In fact, it kind of sucks having to do that. But it’s the only way to prevent a crisis. It’s amazing how two little words in the English language work as well as they do: I’m sorry. Not I’m sorry, but…just, I’m sorry.
  3. Communicate the story. When a story gets out of control is when you haven’t told your side and people begin to speculate. Like with Tiger Woods and the tabloids speculating he was going in and out of a sex addict clinic (he wasn’t), he hadn’t told his side of the story so they began to make things up based on what little information they had.
  4. Communicate where it happens. If an issue or crisis is exploding on YouTube, that is where you take to the waves to tell your story. When employees were caught sneezing and spitting in food on video, the Domino’s CEO recorded a video and his team posted it to YouTube. He apologized in the same spot people were looking for the employee video.
  5. Hire a communications expert. I’m not talking about someone who knows how to use social media. I’m not talking about someone who works for a company that has experienced an issue or crisis. I’m talking about someone who has deep and intense experience in managing an issue or crisis. Typically these people work in PR firms and specialize in crisis communication or reputation management. It’s unlikely a company will go through enough issues or crises in its lifetime to give someone the expertise you’ll need if something happens. If you can’t afford a communications expert, become BFFs with someone who can help you think through issues when they arise. Put them on your advisory board. If you have a paid board, add them to that. Have that person on speed dial.
  6. Think before you act. Yes, things happen in real-time. Yes, we live in a 24/7/365 world. Yes, it’s fast-paced and you have to act quickly. But that does not excuse you from thinking. When we were kids, my dad used to tell us all the time, “Don’t ever put anything in writing you don’t want used against you later.” That’s very sage advice in today’s digital world.
  7. Empower your team. Let your team help. Set the expectations and boundaries, give them the tools and resources they need to be successful, and let them at it!
  8. Say I’m sorry. I know we covered this already, but it’s worth repeating. Of course, you have to mean it and it can’t be accompanied with the word “but.” When you practice saying “I’m sorry” in your every day communications, it becomes easier to say it – and mean it – when an issue develops.
  9. Back down when you’re wrong. If you hold a position on something and someone points out there is a double standard or you’re being hypocritical, reassess your policy.
  10. Have a communications expert on speed dial. Oh I already said this, didn’t I? Whenever I repeat this to friends, colleagues, or peers, someone will text me with some smarty pants remark such as, “How quickly do you respond to communication crises?” Have someone on speed dial who has lots and lots and lots of experience with issues and crisis management. You might think you’ll never need it – and maybe you won’t – but Murphy’s Law dictates the second you don’t, something will happen. It’s like having insurance: If you have it, you won’t need it.

Now it’s your turn. What do you advise a company do when the online fallout is so great it feels like the whole world is writing about it?

A version of this first appeared on Tom Fox’s blog, FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog, in which I had to wear a Texans shirt because I lost a bet. 

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • You can’t control a crisis but you can manage it. I am an advocate of a swift response but I also recommend taking a deep breath to make sure you are doing more than just reacting.
    Pull emotion out of the equation and think about whether your response is like water or oil on a fire and then handle things.
    Pay attention to the group(s) you are dealing with and give an appropriate response. One size does not always fit.

    • Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes It’s like the Applebee’s example…if they had taken a breath instead of responding to people in the middle of the night, it likely wouldn’t have blown up as big as it did.

  • Oh my God. OWN THE STORY!!! As some one who worked in media, let me say, you will have erroneous information flying at warp speed until you own the story. Fall on your sword. Do whatever it takes but be the first (if you can) to get information out. Otherwise, kiss it goodbye.

    • belllindsay Completely agree. Become the first and main source of information and help direct the story on your terms.

    • belllindsay Exactly! Wouldn’t you rather tell the story than have someone else tell it for you?

      • ginidietrich belllindsay ‘when you are explaining, you’re losing…’

  • As an extension of yesterday’s post, ginidietrich issues and crisis management (online and offline) is where PR has the opportunity to differentiate itself from other professional services and demonstrate real value to clients.

    • EdenSpodek The thing that drives me kind of nuts about this digital world in which we live is people who have zero communications experience are handling online crisis because they’re good at social media. To your point, it takes a specific expertise to handle those kinds of things…and being good at Twitter isn’t it.

      • ginidietrich EdenSpodek YES, YES, oh and YESSSS!

      • ginidietrich EdenSpodek Gini, crisis communications takes COMMUNICATIONS skill, not platform skill. 🙂

        • ClayMorgan EdenSpodek Amen.

        • ClayMorgan  I love that term Clay! Too many people think platform skill is all it takes to be successful when using social media and/or online marketing for that matter. 😉 I wonder what any of them would do in a crisis? We’ve seen some interesting situations when that has probably been the case, for example, Google “City of Vaughan social media”.

  • Great list! Definitely adding this to my list of ‘required’ reading for clients. 
    One big one that I see soooo much:
    Beware of ‘crisis chasers’. These are squirmy idiots that will email and call you the moment that whatever ‘crisis google alert’ they have set up, brings up your name. They will promise they can make it all disappear for the mere price of 18 easy installments of $29.99 (plus taxes, fees and other associated bull crap). Normally they will indicate some sort of magically ‘SEO technology’ or the like that will -POOF- amazingly make everything vanish, media and shareholders forget and community and consumers adore you.

    • LauraPetrolino OMG. I didn’t know people did that. Of course, it make sense, but I had no idea!

      • I think because my clients tend to be just launching their business or just launching their online presence/branding, I see it more than most (since these are obviously the most gullible targets). It is really horrendous and I’ve definitely had clients come to me devestated after they’ve thrown away thousands on these slimeballs 🙁

  • As a non-PR, I’m a big fan of #5, hire a communications expert. I saw a presentation recently about what you should do in a crisis, and it was accompanied by specific examples of what people actually did. It was painful to watch.
    I always say CMO is one of the toughest c-suite positions because everyone thinks they know marketing. I think there is a similar dynamic for PR/Comm. Many people don’t understand that it only looks easy because when professionals do it right, it well… looks easy.

    • Adam | Customer Experience Sigh…yes. I was at a dinner before we went to Paris and a woman there was telling me how she – after a 30 year career – has decided to go into PR because she needs a change and “it’s not rocket science.” I just smiled and nodded.

  • PattiRoseKnight1

    Great post Gini  and I would stress #5.  To the company a crisis; be it big or small is personal.  If a company hires a professional expert they can look at the situation clearly and act accordingly. I also think shopping around for that expert should be done way before a crisis.  You may never need to hire them but knowing you have your plan in place is real peace of mind.

    • PattiRoseKnight1 One of my favorite things is when a friend calls because I’m the only communications expert they know. How many times has that happened in the last year? Three? Of course, we always help them and then they get a long lecture from me about avoiding that in the future.

  • I am with many of the commenters but would raise #5 (hire and expert) to #1 so that the rest of the steps would unfold in a strategic and methodical manner.  That is, of course, assuming they have followed your posts on how to hire the correct PR firm/individual 😉

    • annelizhannan Unfortunately, the people who need this counsel the most don’t read blogs. Blah.

  • I suppose I have two comments. For the first, I am in the not-all-that-enviable position of being the undisputedly most ardent social media freak at my workplace, but not being the social media person. Exactly the kind of things you mention could happen here — a kid could have their medical bills not paid because something got screwed up administratively — and our Facebook page is the first place they would go to air their grievances, tainting the view of everyone who sees the page. Convincing leadership that social media is actually a way to be PROACTIVE and help people solve problems like this rather than being fearful anytime someone says anything negative is ….. not much of an option (or at least the message needs to come from someone besides me). Enough about me. The other thing I would say, being on the “customer” side — is that when you see a business you love being maligned, you can have a role in encouraging cooler heads to prevail and in sharing your positive experiences. Great thoughts, Gini.

    • biggreenpen Social media freak?! That made me laugh out loud!

  • John_Trader1

    I had a sneaking suspicion you were going to write about this as you cooly alluded to it in yesterday’s post. I have to highlight #7 in your list as being one of the most critical. One of the toughest things for communications pros to do is convince their C-level that they should be empowered to react and act in a time of crisis autonomously. Because so many business owners (especially small) feel obligated to accept responsibility for everything that happens and feel the need to be the ones to act as the face of the organization, this can create logjams and bottlenecks and clog your crisis response system. Not the idea situation.
    The key seems to be demonstrated expertise in crisis situations and deft preparedness in the event of one. It’s not easy to ask someone who has poured their heart and soul into a business to cede control of something so critical, but in order to act swiftly and quell a crisis before it spins out of control, sometimes the communications pro needs to take the bulls by the horn. On their own.

    • John_Trader1 You know, you bring up a really good point. If something goes wrong here, I’m always the one to respond to the criticism. Not that Yvette or Lindsay or anyone else, for that matter, isn’t empowered to do so, but I do it because I think it’s expected. I wonder if that’s not true?

      • John_Trader1

        ginidietrich Most business owners expect to be the ones that respond to a crisis or criticism but considering they aren’t always available and precious seconds could end up in a larger nightmare it’s important to hash out the steps to take in the event of owner/leader unavailability. Certainly people expect at some point to see the face of the business, but it can certainly be preceded by someone else acknowledging the situation.

        • John_Trader1 Yes, I see your point and agree. I may not always see it initially, but my team is totally empowered to take care of things when they do.

  • In regards to number 8, I often wonder what the apology is for? Doing something wrong or getting caught? Number 11 needs to be “don’t try to snow the public of the media.” We smell BS a mile away. 
    But it brings up a point. Try to engage the media and other people who have influence. Be honest with them and try to get them on your side as they can become strong advocates in a time of need, if they believe you are genuinely sorry.
    Finally, I think it is important to keep your head down and understand that a crisis recovery takes TIME. It isn’t going to be fixed in a few days, so buckle in for the long-haul.

    • ClayMorgan That’s a really good addition, Clay! Yes…most organizations have media who are big fans and they should use them to help tell their side of the story. I like it! And, from what I hear, journalists are some of the best crisis communicators!

      • ginidietrich 
         Well, I tend to think so. Certainly they are in the midst of crisis quite frequently and tend not to panic when the flapjacks are hitting the fan.

        • ClayMorgan If flapjacks hit the fan, I would grab one and get me some syrup and sit down for a meal. Yummmmm

  • hmmm I read this somewhere just yesterday….but you were wearing an Eli Manning Jersey…very suspicious.

  • Mary Louise Bewley

    I’d like to add a piece of advice to Tip #4. As a person who has lived through multiple crises in my career, I have found it counter-productive to reply to commenters on individual news stories that now accompany both print and broadcast stories posted online. This tends to be the home space of the trolls, and I’ve learned it’s best not to feed the trolls.

  • Pingback: Three Business Lessons Learned from Bell's Palsy by @belllindsay()