Keeping ALL Communication Channels Open During a Crisis

One of my primary criticisms of Scoble and Israel’s book Naked Conversations is its message – intended or not – that blogs are the wave of the future and all other media are unnecessary. It is as though they want to take all other methods company’s have of communicating with their publics and chuck them to the side. Take, for example, their claim in Chapter 13 concerning crisis communication.

I wholeheartedly agree that blogging has played an increasing role in providing “fast, valuable, striking, and comforting information in times of crisis.” A blog is an ideal way to get an online information center up and running in a few minutes. Also, the RSS capability inherent in blogs allows you to communicate your emergency updates over the Web real fast and in different formats, allowing reporters, employees, and others to subscribe to them by email, SMS, etc.

However, despite their dramatically increased popularity, blogs are just one of many traditional and online tools that should be considered for effective crisis communication. In the end, the right mix of communication tools and using the blog wisely within that mix are vital to responding to a crisis successfully. No internal crisis blog is, for instance, going to help if crucial information related to the crisis is repeatedly provided to and appearing in the news media before that information is communicated internally through the blog. And you surely also get counterproductive results if the messages communicated via blogs are untrue or inconsistent with messages delivered through other channels.

It is important to remember that context matters. If you are to use the example of the tsunami cited in Naked Conversations, the photos, videos, and personal stories from those who witnessed the tsunami in Asia did indeed provided vivid imagery. They did not, however, tell the full story. The blogs certainly got the story out much more quickly than could have occurred with traditional journalists, as Israel and Scoble mention, but it took traditional journalists to find out how the tsunami was formed and, more importantly, why there was no early warning system in place that could have saved so many lives.

Similarly, in the business world, there are times when context and accuracy matter more than speed. That is not to say that stonewalling is the right tactic. Nor can a company ignore events or negative or inaccurate comments posted on an influential blog. But simply relying on a company blog to respond to such events is not enough. In a crisis situation, a multichannel approach is best.If a company has released a faulty product or has acted improperly or illegally, how it reacts and handles the crisis – not the channel by which it reacted – will be the basis for how it is treated by the press and its customers. In the Intel case cited by Scoble and Israel, wherein the company had launched a faulty processor, it is unlikely Intel would have handled the situation better online than they did using traditional communication channels. The company probably would have denied any problems with its product in a blog, just as its spokesman did using traditional PR methods. Intel’s blog’s existence – and the company’s participation in the blogosphere – was irrelevant.Scoble and Israel’s argument regarding nipping inaccuracies in the bud is also faulty. The authors claim that monitoring the blogosphere for what is being said about the company is key to quickly correcting false claims and unfounded rumors. Does this mean companies must respond to each and every negative or inaccurate post in the blogosphere? Chris Anderson in his book The Long Tail and others state that blogs are self-editing; that if something untrue or inaccurate is posted, others will jump in to correct the misinformation – such as in Wikipedia. Is it the company’s responsibility to do this? Does the company have to run a blog to respond to a blog? Will a company official making the “correction” be more or less likely to be viewed as credible?

Scoble and Israel cite Scoble’s handling of The Register’s inaccurate article about a Microsoft beta product. Scoble’s blog, the authors claim, saved the company’s reputation and averted a potentially damaging situation. Did Scoble really avert a crisis by responding to The Register’s inaccurate posting? Did that situation actually represent a potential crisis? Had the product actually done what the article claimed it would, that would have been a crisis that would have required a larger corporate communication effort than simply a blog post to buy time by saying, “Oops, sorry. We’ll look into this.” Moreover, if we are to believe what blog proponents say about the self-correcting nature of the blogosphere, Microsoft’s champions – and the application’s beta testers – would have blasted The Register for its inaccurate reporting. 

Finally, in the case of a true crisis, a company should make every effort to get its facts right and that they reach as much of their relevant publics as efficiently as possible. This means taking the time to get those facts right and consistent, regardless of who is communicating them. We have seen how devastating misinformation can be, for example, in manufacturing disasters or mine shaft collapses. In such cases, uniformity of voice is crucial. Imagine if there were hundreds of company bloggers at the Murray Energy Corporation when its Utah mine collapsed last August. What would have happened if well-intentioned company bloggers accidentally posted inaccurate information concerning rescue efforts?

Handling dire situations – real crises – also means using communication channels that the majority of the company’s publics are using. If you look at the statistics, only a fraction of the U.S. population actually reads or posts to blogs. Business Week reported that a Forrester study found that 11.2% of online adults in the United States publish a blog at least once a month. Of the same group, 24.8% read a blog and 13.7% comment on a blog at least once a month. Clearly, a company blog is not the right channel in all cases.. In a true crisis, a company will need to reach a much larger audience than that. A Web site, a press release, or a press conference would be a much more effective way to get key information out to the public.

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