Did the Ice Bucket Challenge Educate the C-suite on How to Manage a Crisis?

September 10, 2014

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CEOs all over the world are emptying buckets of ice over themselves in the name of a good cause, but has this viral phenomenon alerted them to the opportunities – and dangers – of social media in a crisis?

The speed at which the ALS ice bucket challenge has built momentum and a dedicated, engaged following illustrates how an effectively-executed social media programme can be a game changer. But to achieve this, a company needs to understand how to communicate at the speed of its audience. In a crisis management context, failure to recognize this douses any chance of managing (or at the very least guiding) an issue’s lifecycle and lifespan online.

With CEOs having largely led the way in the ALS challenge, are they able to show that same leadership when the unthinkable happens? Stories in today’s 24/7, switched-on world go global in minutes, which means that companies who find their crisis plan to be outdated and inadequate at the most inopportune moments may suffer a spine-tingling wakeup call of a different nature.

The traditional command-and-control approach to crisis management – built around heavy centralization of procedures, consultation with multiple internal stakeholders, sluggish approval processes and insistence that standard responses are issued via traditional media – will in fact compound a crisis that promises to play out in the social realm, making the reputational damage significantly worse. Companies therefore must move with the times, and it is this inventive ice bucket challenge that can offer them the inspiration and direction they need for crisis communications in the new viral world.

  • Build your crisis strategy around social media. Consumers are quick to use the power of social media to put pressure on companies. In 2013, a dissatisfied Maserati owner hired a team of men to smash his Quattroporte at the high-profile Qingdao Auto Show. Video of the demolition went viral and Maserati found itself in damage-control mode – all because of a single irate customer. A corollary to the rule above: don’t skimp on social media monitoring. Staying on top of company-related buzz can be hard in foreign lands, as Western executives who can’t read Chinese won’t be able to get a feel for the situation by looking at Sina Weibo. The same goes for Asian companies operating in Western countries. Be sure to make use of a good social media listening tool that works in different languages, translates accurately and can track issues (and antagonists) in real time.
  • Become your own media outlet. Use “owned media” to show what you’re doing to solve the problem. During China’s recent milk scandals, New Zealand’s government and its dairy producers could have posted online videos about their quality assurance programs, staff training procedures, maintenance, hygiene and operations. Milk suppliers also could have used staff as spokespersons to talk about their commitment to putting out safe products.
  • Shorten the chain of command. Crises are measured in tweets per second, and reputational damage in a crisis is often directly proportional to speed of response. Make local employees your first responders by empowering them to communicate in a crisis – rather than waiting for them to email New York and wait for Legal to draft a response which then gets circulated among a dozen people and is only approved three days later. Train them, ensure they know the company’s key messages and authorize someone local to speak to media as soon as the story breaks.
  • Remember who’s boss. China’s single most exceptional feature is that its one-party government wields unchallenged power. GSK, Apple, OSI Husi should have recognized it sooner. Once state media went on the attack, companies should have delivered a quick response.
  • Don’t be afraid to apologize. PR experts and lawyers tend to lock horns over this, as an apology is often viewed as an admission of guilt (with all the attendant legal implications). In Asia, however, an apology can often end a public crisis – but it has to be sincere. A heartfelt apology may have kept Apple’s crisis in China to one news cycle rather than a fortnight of reputational damage. KFC, in its initial responses last year, seemed to follow the same path as Apple, which issued several equivocal statements that only made things worse. Far from an admission of guilt, an apology can show concern and humility – qualities that can go a long way toward restoring calm in a crisis situation.