Crises Communications and the Internet: Friend or Foe?

The internet has without a doubt caused a wave of change in corporate culture, operations, and interpersonal interaction. Companies have in the past made use of the internet as a means to communicate to their audiences in a controlled environment. However, technology has advanced at a remarkable rate and companies have had to rethink their strategies in order to effectively communicate with stakeholders. One cannot deny that there has been a major shift in communication processes and that technology has imposed a sink or swim reality on the way that many people do business.

Method to the madness?

In today’s world, people share experiences more so than ever because they have been given the tools to do so through the internet and social platforms. For some, the world is in some sort of technological turmoil with tablets being used as learning tools in schools, cell phones in both pockets, and televisions everywhere including our bathrooms.

However for the most part, the internet comes as a sort of saving grace because people can gain access to content and create it at almost the same rate. We as humans also enjoy the idea of sharing experiences and the internet provides the perfect platform to do so. From a consumer perspective, a friend’s personal experience is seemingly more credible than the dictated reality that is handed to us by brands. User-generated content is more common than ever and companies have had to adapt to losing a piece of the messaging pie.

The effect on a company’s reputation in a crisis

Time is an invaluable commodity that companies have lost. How so you may ask? In the past companies were able to compose themselves in a crisis situation as they had the power to control messaging to a certain extent. That no longer exists. Information now spreads like wild fire before any authoritative body can put out the flames. People no longer need to have a degree to make their views known to the mass public as everyone has become a “publisher” in their own right.

This reality has not only confirmed the importance of crisis communications but also that of effective and strategic communications. Social media is immediate and the increase in the speed at which we are receiving news directly affects reaction times in a crisis situation. A large number of websites link to platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and various blogs. Consumers have raised their expectations regarding the way that companies interact with them on a daily basis and more so during a crisis. Therefore companies need to have a crisis plan in place to manage these expectations when faced with a crisis.

By the time a crisis hits, you’re no longer looking at preventative measures and the team in place needs to be able to manage the negative impact that the situation has had and will have on the company’s reputation. Part of effective crisis communications involves strategic decision making in order to handle the crisis environment.

The internet broadens the environment whether the company in question likes it or not. Furthermore, the advancements in technology would mean that the details of a crisis are almost instantly made aware to the worldwide media, bloggers, and internet users at large. This could have immense effects on the company if the crisis team underestimates the power of virtual opinion. The speed at which negative conversations have the potential to spread, means that crisis communication teams need to have the response protocol models in place to manage the “uncontrolled environment” that is social media.

So how does one gain control in a seemingly uncontrollable environment?

User-generated content is important for research purposes during a crisis. Social media can be a crisis management tool as it provides companies with the means to gather intelligence “straight from the horse’s mouth”.

It is very possible to crumble when you’re receiving a mass influx of negative commentary or opinions about your organisation. However, the person that said the glass is half full and not empty was onto something. The internet and social media is a platform to gain insight into first hand public opinion. This is beneficial in a crisis situation because the company can better direct their messaging and communication to suit the audience’s needs.

Social media channels offer invaluable insight during a crisis situation as the information is immediate and readily available. Furthermore, social media provides an additional platform for companies to engage their audiences. Social media facilitates the process of information sharing, providing the company with key consumer feedback. The internet is not only used for spreading information, it is also important to gain insight and to learn about stakeholder concerns. This information helps companies structure an effective crisis plan to guide the crisis team during a crisis.

But it doesn’t end there. The manner in which a company responds to complaints and communicates with its audiences during a crisis is a fundamental component of the right response strategy. Companies should ensure that responses are timely, accurate and that they are consistent with any messaging communicated through traditional media channels.

Applying this to your crisis situation

Monitor – It is important that companies monitor social conversation on a regular basis and not only in the advent of a crisis because news breaks online before it appears in papers. Companies can use various online monitoring tools such as Radian 6, to track mentions relating to their business or to the crisis.

Manage – Companies need to direct conversation and manage messages in an uncontrolled environment. There are a number of strategies that could be implemented to achieve this, one being maximising established relationships with influencers. Online influencers tell your story for you, they have a large following, and thus hold the ability to change perceptions within the consumer market.

What can we make of this?

Hate it or love it, the internet has become a great thought sharing platform. This in itself could be a crisis for an unprepared team or it could be a strategic match made in heaven.

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