Scary thought for consultants: are crises overblown?

There’s quite a group of people like me who make a living, or try to, by telling CEO-types that “they better prepare” because “now is too late.” The underlying and compelling reason is that a major crisis is a big deal, maybe even life or death for the corporation. But, this Wall Street Journal article poses an interesting and potentially disturbing question: are these new kind of social media-driven crises not really such a big deal? Do they really have any lasting impact on the share price, bottom-line an organization future?

The article traces the story of three recent reputation crises which would fit in the category of serious. But, it shows that the impact of these events was very short-lived and with little to no apparent damage to brand value, share price or profits. One of the organizations highlighted is Goldman Sachs which has become a favorite whipping boy of the media in the last while with little apparent impact on the company’s future or performance.

The writer of the article also asks a number of PR professionals what they think of these short-lived events. “Puzzled by such sanguine attitudes, I asked PR experts for an explanation. Their answers can be grouped in three categories: “the shiny object,” “the loyalty issue” and “the lack of choice.”"

Personally, I have felt for some time that the recent changes mean several things:

- much increased vulnerability because of how the digital lynch mob can operate (thanks Geoff for that descriptive term)
- much faster response required because of the light speed of the hyper-networked
- much faster cycle from germination, to full bloom, to the leaves dropping harmlessly
- potentially lower impact because of the sheer volume of these (see increased vulnerability) and the weariness and loss of attention span caused by the volume and frequency.

There are other important factors highlighted by the PR pros. One is loyalty, the other is the growing realization that the digital lynch mob is not the whole world (see my post on Komen Foundation where I think most PR analysts completely missed this point). But the biggest difference to me is engagement. Pre-engagement with key stakeholders. This is becoming my new mantra but I think it is critical. If you talk to the people who matter, and a lot of them at that, on an on-going basis, then when it hits the fan, you can just keep talking. You either say: we screwed up and we’re sorry and we’re fixing it, or the lynch mob has it wrong and here’s why, or the media’s not telling the truth and here’s why.

This ability to just step up and on-going conversation is one big reason why I think a lot of the flutter than happens on the Internet and media with these kinds of issues just won’t be such a big deal. But, if your only way of talking to the people who really matter is through the media by pushing out a press release or two, hang on for a longer and much bumpier ride.

A Post Script re Pink Slime.

The pink slime crisis sort of gives lie to the above issue of crises not having such a great impact. BPI certainly wouldn’t say that as it fights for its life. Another producer of the beef product, just filed for bankruptcy.

2 thoughts on “Scary thought for consultants: are crises overblown?”

  1. I think you may be on to something.

    I work for a small association. We have roughly 6,000 – 7,000 members. Of that number, roughly 20-30 individuals are highly vocal, and often extremely critical of the Board of Directors and office staff. They do a lot of venting on Twitter, and a fair bit on LinkedIn and other personal blogs.

    When you’re only hearing from a segment of your constituency, you tend to amplify their voices and project them onto the rest. Social media is the great equalizer, and it makes things that appear to be a crisis seem bigger than they really are. If five people are complaining very loudly about something, that doesn’t mean that those five people are actually representative of the whole. But when you’re in the mindset that the right communications strategy is engagement, you can become laser focused on this subset and think they’re the whole world.

    Getting the right perspective is key in the way social media plays into PR.

    I think the other thing that’s at work here is how short our attention span has become. Komen feels like it happened ages ago. Crises come and go, and unless the company blows over in the first week, it’s a good bet they’ll weather the storm, and we can just move on. People have so much incoming information, they don’t have time to nurse a grudge about bad business. Not unless it’s a legitimately big deal.

    One of the hardest things we’re all going to have to learn is how to step back and figure out whether the crisis we’re facing today is a mountain or a mole hill.

    1. Your last sentence, about being able to step back and assess what is a major hurricane of a crisis and what is just a nasty little breeze, is very important and I think constitutes one of the biggest and most important challenges today.

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