The old rules no longer apply. In fact, they have not applied for quite some time.
As recent headlines made clear, crisis communications is now driven by digital media. Television. Radio. Newspapers. Rather than leading the public discussion of Tiger Woods or Toyota, these traditional — some would say increasingly archaic — mediums seem more like they are trying to catch up with the drama being played out minute-by-minute on Twitter, on Facebook, and on blogs.
To say that the news cycle moves at a frenetic pace may be an understatement. This is the new normal ... and it has been for several years. In fact, shrewd companies implemented corporate social media policies years ago and have incorporated them into their daily marketing and communications activities.
This is particularly true for brands in crisis.Gone is the focus on the evening news or the morning newspaper. Gone is the ability to craft a single, official-sounding press release. Gone is the ability to control the flow of bad information.
When the 1982 Tylenol scare was unfolding, company executives had to deal with a relatively new, relatively challenging phenomenon: a 24-hour news cycle. Information had to flow faster. Stories were harder to control. And crisis communications took on a whole new meaning. In other words, CNN made life a whole lot more challenging for companies trying to do damage control.
Yet, the medium and the message were essentially unchanged. Johnson & Johnson still relied on traditional media and were still able to use the same statements — substantively — for each venue.
Fast forward to 2010 when Toyota and Southwest Airlines were confronted with their own crises, and you have a vastly different, vastly more challenging picture. New venues. New expectations. New opportunities. New challenges.
Without question, Toyota's response to its growing recall has failed in almost every respect. It has been slow. It has been confused. And it has been premised on the company's misguided belief that it could control the flow of bad information. These missteps, in turn, have been compounded by Toyota's failure to effectively use social media — something that is further undermining the company's ability to tell its story, connect with its customers and maintain its credibility.
Southwest, on the other hand, immediately turned to digital outlets when actor Kevin Smith began tweeting to his 1.6 million followers about his "embarrassing" experience aboard a recent flight. Granted, the airline got beaten to the punch in this case of "he said, she said", but it moved swiftly across a range of digital mediums — with a host of individually tailored messages — to issue its apology and clarify the situation.
Yet, it is instructive to recognize that this relatively minor story — which started from less than 140 characters on Twitter — almost immediately resulted in over 500,000 Google web results, over 50,000 blog entries, and nearly 2,000 news stories on the matter.
Back in the day, Tiger Wood's carefully choreographed press event would have largely controlled the story. The evening news would have covered it. The morning newspapers would have covered it. And that would be the end of the conversation until later that evening. No blog postings. No Facebook comments. No tweets. No nothing. Just some water cooler talk among colleagues.
That was then.
Today, regardless of the company or the crisis, the fact remains: Information — real and rumor — travels at lightning speed...literally. The pace and form of information flow is now near impossible to control. The best a company can hope to do is try to manage it. And the best way to manage it is to embrace the new normal with respect to crisis communications.
In other words, go digital ... yesterday.
Michael W. Kempner is the President/CEO of MWW Group, an East Rutherford-based Public Relations firm.