Handling online crises...

Get free weekly news by e-mailOnline reputation management should be high on the ‘to do’ list for savvy business continuity managers, says Jonathan Hemus.

“The Dominos crisis experience has demonstrated that companies can no longer count on the stone tablets of traditional media to alert them to reputational risk. The critical lesson for corporations is not to evaluate Domino’s reaction as a bystander, but to change their online digital strategy, and do it now,” Business Week, April 2009.

For 24 hours, YouTube footage of two Dominos’ employees flouting all known rules of food hygiene in a variety of stomach-churning ways threatened to cause enormous harm to its reputation. Crisis management gurus – along with customers, investors and the media – watched and waited to see how they would respond. As each hour passed, thousands more people viewed the gruesome YouTube footage, and many spread the word via Twitter, Facebook and other social media. Every minute, the crisis grew and posed an ever greater threat to the business.

Just as the situation threatened to spiral completely out of Dominos’ control, the communication fightback began. Video footage of the CEO acknowledging the situation, expressing concern to customers and promising to address it appeared on YouTube, and the company began Twittering for all it was worth. From being absent from the discussion, Dominos was suddenly a leading participant and a key source of comment. Consequently it regained a degree of control over the situation and, it seems, contained the reputational damage.

But why did it take 24 hours to swing into action? And – as suggested by BusinessWeek – will the Dominos’ experience be the catalyst for other corporations to reassess their crisis preparedness?

Crises are rarely responsible for causing harm to a business. But a company’s response to a crisis can do untold damage. Research by Oxford Metrica shows that it is not the fact of suffering a crisis that damages a business – in reality no business can eliminate the possibility of a problem - what really counts is how the organization is seen to manage the crisis: take control quickly, respond professionally, and communicate well and the organization is likely to prosper. Dither, hide or appear to be uncaring, and tough – even terminal – challenges may lie ahead.

As a result, thorough crisis preparedness is essential so that the organization can be off the starting blocks like an Olympic sprinter. And – just like in athletics – what used to be speedy enough to win a gold medal is now far from world class.

Experts used to say that the first 24 hours of a crisis were crucial. The speed and spread of crises today - largely driven by the immediacy and reach of on-line media – makes a mockery of this golden rule. Being prepared before the crisis breaks, and being able to respond almost instantaneously allows organizations to retain control over their destiny.

This means that all of the old lessons of crisis preparedness still apply (but even more so):

- Understand your areas of vulnerability
- Develop and implement crisis management plans and processes
- Rehearse the plan and enhance it
- Train your people, especially those required to act as a spokesperson in a crisis
- Monitor the landscape
- Engage in pro-active issues management.

But the power of online media presents a new and potentially scary dynamic. Digital media has enormous power to both create and destroy reputations. And many organizations are still grappling with how to harness online media in the face of this potentially business-critical challenge.

Failing to do this leaves the organization frighteningly vulnerable in today’s world. If a crisis is gestating online then the organization must have the capability to also manage it online. Sticking to traditional media has the potential for at least three negative results. Firstly, you may fail to reach those people most affected and concerned by the crisis – the people talking about it online. Secondly, you lose the opportunity to engage with the online community which has the power to spread positive messages about what the organization is doing to deal with the situation. And finally, you may further escalate the situation by communicating bad news to people who were previously unaware that there was a problem.

The key to success is the combination of traditional reputation management insights and expertise, and the application of the latest on-line reputation management tools to get the message through.

As the start point for online reputation management, companies should:

- Develop crisis management ‘dark sites’ to respond quickly, clearly and effectively to emerging issues and incidents
- Ensure that it has identified and set up the infrastructure to communicate via social media such as Twitter and Facebook
- Implement online media monitoring to track what is being said about them in cyberspace
- Employ search engine optimisation to ensure the company’s perspective is heard loud and clear rather than being swamped by the views of others
- Develop the capability to quickly create content – latest information, briefing papers, podcasts, blogs - for online media.

The Internet has the power to spark and spread a crisis: but used effectively, digital tools have enormous potential to help organizations prevent and manage them too. We can only hope that companies really do learn the lessons of the Dominos crisis and, more importantly, act on them. If not, there are many well known reputations dangerously vulnerable to an online assault.

Author: Jonathan Hemus is director of Insignia, a reputation management and communication consultancy, specialising in crisis, issues and online reputation management. Contact him by telephone (+44 786 832 9102), email, or via www.insigniacomms.com

•Date: 21st May 2009• Region:UK/World •Type: Article •Topic: Crisis management
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