From ‘Stick’ to ‘Auto’ Social Media Helps Drive Crisis Communications

Four on the Floor

‘The peddle to the metal’

Back many years ago, I attained my license with the help from a very trusted Italian – my Fiat 500. She was not Gina Lollobridgida but was fitted appropriately with a feisty 4-speed gearbox and a sweet looking candy apple red exterior. Certainly a dream come true for any young man at 18.

There is much to be said about learning to drive a ‘stick’ opposed to an automatic. Better gas economy, longer brake life and more versatility when driving for others. Oddly enough none of which came in handy while diving through the fens of Cambridge England delivering wine in ‘85. But that’s another story.

Driving a good crisis communication plan has much in common with that old 4-speed Fiat in Windsor Ontario. From first to fourth comes a procession of tried and true communication methods: gathering the facts, shaping the issue, mitigating a process and monitoring the absolute bejesus out of it. Many of these tenets, and a further six, are explored extensively by Vancouver-based expert John Barr and his book Trainwrecks. How Corporate Reputations Collapse and Managements Try to Rebuild Them (covered last year by Globe and Mail columnist Harvey Schachter) to help fretted corporations manage their ‘pending’ issues.

Managing critical issues was a key responsibility during my tenure as national public affairs manager for the stem cell business line at Canadian Blood Services (CBS). Crisis communications took many forms with issues ranging from volcanic ash air travel disruption, to patient appeals. All straightforward in planning and execution as my team and I would bring measured results for both client and partners. Nested within our crisis strategy sat traditional media that in itself frequently took centre stage by utilizing print and broadcast channels to tell the story of transparency, accountability and concern. Slowly the issue would recede to the back of the public’s mind and all would be good – hopefully.

Then came a huge shift in how a crisis is initially presented to the public, reported throughout and monitored.

Social media.

To offer a clear picture of how crisis has found friend and foe in social media, picture this true and often repeated scenario.

You are living the good life. Health, financial vestment well tailored for many years, kids driving you nuts but love them dearly and you finally got that 30-year scotch you wanted.

One morning you start to realize your 12-year old is sleeping a lot and showing more bruises than a weekly round of hockey will produce. You and your partner take her to the doctor where at lightening speed she is diagnosed with leukemia. Your good life is now over for any foreseeable future. Your world is upside down and your family is in crisis.

Now spring forward to a barrage of testing only to result in the eventual news that ‘your baby’ will need a stem cell transplant to survive. This is your only child so no sibling match can be found (30% of HLA matches come from a sibling match). The only hope your champion left-winger remains is a blood stem cell transplant. This will need to come from someone you will not know and from god knows where. Where do you turn?

Why the internet of course. Within one breath you put up a Facebook page, set up a Twitter handle and desperately post, tweet and retweet.

‘Heck why not; we live in the digital age.’

You then proceed to call every media outlet you can muster to tell your story. A natural response but nevertheless one that can work so much better when integrated with social media tactics.

Carefully and with a metered approach, you convince the family that online is just one part of an effective communication strategy. A strategy that will build community, foster advocates and spread the word to find that illusive HLA match not just for your daughter but also for all patients.

Is that not the true meaning of a social network at work?

Good crisis communications planning will always have traditional media side-by-side with social navigating through the initial fear and uncertainty towards a result favourable to all parties.

From 4-speeds to overdrives, using all the speeds available when working in crisis will get you to your desired destination. Whether the radio is AM or SirusXM.