Digital Opinion South Africa

Crisis management in the digital world

Whether you are reading about the Volkswagen emissions scandal, #[insertgrievancehere]mustfall, or another link bait headline by Donald Trump, it becomes clear that crisis communication has changed irrevocably in the age of digital.

Brands (whether personal or at an organisational level) are operating in an environment where reputations are fragile and loyalty is something that is but a fleeting thought. The narratives of traditional and new media define how we, the audience, shift our attitudes and sides depending on whose truth we rely on.

This in itself is not a revelation but it shows that how communicators must change the way they handle crises in the new media cycle. Thanks to the internet, there are a plethora of tools and services providers that can, at the click of a mouse, view content in real-time. However, the nature of business (and the crisis itself) means decision-makers have precious little time to read, analyse, and respond directly in a timely fashion.

Crisis management in the digital world
©Timur Arbaev via 123RF

Instead, there is an increased reliance on teams who are not only well-versed in dealing with crisis communication, but also understand the nuances and requirements of the digital landscape. These individuals must be able to get the data, analyse and contextualise it in the greater scheme of things, and also provide strategic recommendations on next steps.

And while having a dedicated crisis communication team is hardly a new concept, the level of trust and freedom they need to get in a real-time environment is something that would have been unheard of even a few years ago. At the heart of the matter is the nature of a crisis. Often, it entails an issue that very few people know about and is somehow leaked to the media or the online world.

It is quite difficult for even the best crisis communication teams to get in front of the story if there is not a willingness by client to share all the information with them. Having access to the facts means a plan can be developed and implemented on both social and traditional media fronts.

The temptation to reach to social media comments might be there, but knowing when to respond forms part of the experience of the team assembled. Just as with media training 101, it is never advisable to respond to online questions with 'no comment'. Even if it is something as simplistic as that you are still investigating the matter or gathering information, do not ignore all social questions. This is especially true if they come from influencers in your industry.

Quick responses are good but there needs to be context. Especially in the age of instant communication where the risk for people being misquoted is there. Focusing on the facts also remove any emotion out of what you are saying. And while the merits of an emotionless response can be open to debate, it is best not to give any opportunity for people to misread what you are saying, especially on social platforms.

All told, there is no silver bullet approach to crisis communication in the digital world. It boils down to doing the basics right and being fast (and flexible) enough to respond using new media platforms.

About Jaco Pienaar

Jaco is an MA Information Science graduate who specialises in research, analytical framework development, and content analysis. His thesis was on Intellectual Capital measurement and he applies this to his framework developments as well as knowledge strategies. Professionally, Jaco has worked in the journalism field, academic environment, multi-national research environment, and media analysis environment. He is currently the Chief Knowledge Officer at Professional Evaluation and Research.
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