PR Crisis Management in a Digital World

PR Crisis Management in a Digital World

22nd April 2014

PR Crisis Management in a Digital WorldThe phrase ‘today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper’ is no longer the case. Living in a digital age where the tiniest ripple can make monumental waves online, means it is verging on impossible for PRs to control the public perception of a brand.

Years ago, when a PR crisis erupted, a team of spin doctors and industry professionals would swoop in and hatch a plan of action. In a space of hours, these professionals could change the newspaper’s headlines, as well as the public’s thoughts. These PRs were all about the clean up, focusing on the aftermath of a crisis.

Now, Digital PRs are coming through the ranks and becoming the most sought-after professionals by brands.  They are the future of PR. For the Offline PR trying to transition online, it is important to understand the landscape before planning ambitious social and online campaigns.

  1. News moves fast


So fast, that it is uncontrollable. What you think isn’t newsworthy, might be picked up by a highly influential ezine or blog and turned into headline news. Or a PR move that you made with good intentions could be perceived in a completely different light to what you or the client intended.

To put the above in perspective, let’s take a trip down memory lane. Remember when McDonalds launched a micro site this time last year? The site was developed to help their employees with their budgets and personal finance. An altruistic move right? Wrong. What happened was a PR nightmare. News channels, social media outlets and the general public turned against the fast food chain, saying that the micro site was a confession that the conglomerate wasn’t paying its workers enough. The complaint was personally taken up by McDonald’s workers, who staged a protest and demanded more pay within days of the micro site’s launch.

McDonalds were forced to shut their micro site down and pretend it never happened. But the effects are still littered on most online news sites.

  1. You can change the news, but not a person’s view

Source: @bobblebardsley

The days of worrying about what one intemperate journalist thought is long gone. With the social boom, every person who has a strong opinion can speak out and preach to their mass online following.

House PR learned their lesson this year when they prompted any journalist invited to the Brits to plug the sponsor of the event and their client, MasterCard – including what they could/couldn’t tweet.

When House PR sent this request to Telegraph diarist Tim Walker, he announced their shameless PR plug on Twitter and also leaked the request to the Press Gazette.

  1. Everyone is a detective

Joshua Hensler LinkedIn

When a brand hits digital meltdown and there is an army of bloggers, journalists and social media influencers pounding down the doors, it is important that they put on their best face. After all, anyone who is online can find certain information about the brand: what their social is saying and the key players behind the brand. This happened ever so recently when  US Airways entered into one of the worst PR crises to date.

After an explicit (to say the least) picture was sent to a disgruntled customer over Twitter, and then left on the micro blogging site for a whole hour, journalists, bloggers and social users shared, commented and reported on the incident.

And then, it got worse. The Columbus of the internet found the man behind their social. Social media manager of US Airways, Joshua R. Hensler, was subjected to scrutiny from the public – his LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter page was raised to everyone’s attentions. It didn’t help that he’d branded himself a ‘social alchemist’ and ‘aggressive engineer of perception’ during the worst PR crisis the airline company had ever gone through.

Digital PR, it’s a trickier animal to control

It has become more apparent, as more brands fail online; Digital PR is a much trickier animal to control. It is virtually impossible to rescue a PR crisis when online features don’t disappear. The trick is to make sure that your preparation phase for a campaign includes a turnaround for an out-of-the-blue blunder.

As digital natives, we have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. It is about getting into the psyche of the blogger/tweeter/outlandish journalist persona, and make sure that a good news story doesn’t turn into a PR nightmare or worse, a meme!

A PR meltdown on the internet can happen at any time. You cannot predict when an employee with a grudge might hack into their company’s Twitter or when a brand might misstep in their marketing.

Here are a few key tips to keep on hand for when that fateful day might happen:

Have ‘PR friendly’ brand representatives on hand:

It is impossible to control the personality of everyone who represents the brand, but it is important they are not an easy target for ridicule. Outspoken: yes. Rude and tactless: no.

Be aware of what is happening in the world:

There is nothing worse than launching a campaign whilst the world is in disaster mode. Brands who do this are asking for critics to ridicule them.

Honesty is the best PR:

No clean up of a PR disaster has ever been done by sweeping it under the carpet. With digital footprints as permanent as tattoos, everyone can have a long memory – and the proof to back it up. Honesty is the best policy. Addressing the situation instead of sugar coating it will always gain respect.

Do not leave any stone uncovered:

It’s not only intrusive journalists you need to worry about any more; this is why it’s so important for brand narratives to be watertight. From social platforms, to website and key brand representatives. Keep everything and everyone on the same page, sending out the same message.

Every piece of digital marketing we initiate has to have the worst case scenario thought of and planned for. Brands and PR’s are outed on a daily basis and no aggressive PR push is gone unnoticed. It is important that with our marketing, there is a plan before hand and a fall back to ensure that the brand we are trying to push will not be dragged into the mud.


Written By
Jodie Harris heads up the Digital PR division at MediaVision. She has worked in publication relations since 2008. She specialises in bringing the rules of traditional PR to a digital platform.
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