Behind the Headlines With Josh Culling
Josh Culling, senior vice president at Dezenhall Resources, Ltd., says it’s more important to add value with your crisis communication than to try and spin the issue.
In this interview, he shares the steps your brand should take when a crisis arises, how to use social media in your crisis communication plan and why you need to avoid cliché statements when dealing with crises.
What are some of the biggest PR challenges facing organizations today?
There’s almost always someone or something that doesn’t like you and stands to benefit directly from taking you down. Whether it’s a competitor, a special interest group, a short seller, the trial bar, a government regulator or an aggrieved consumer with a Twitter account, big companies are more vulnerable than ever before.
There is almost zero downside for a motivated adversary to launch an attack on a corporation – it could come in the form of an online boycott petition by an activist group (great fundraising material regardless of merit), a class action lawsuit (chances of a quick settlement are high) or a simple but attention-grabbing social media comment (people love to throw rocks under the cover of anonymity).
These are all potentially very damaging at worst, or an ongoing nuisance at best, to companies who want to be focusing on delivering value to consumers and shareholders but increasingly find themselves dealing with daily crises.
This is a new David and Goliath scenario for the business community, and unless corporations are willing to confront the reality that the people who don’t like them are much more vocal than the everyday consumers who buy their products, they are going to be experiencing chronic headaches on a daily basis.
Today, one comment on social can impact a brand’s reputation. How do you combat that?
Social media provides amazing opportunities for companies and brands to increase exposure and tell their stories. But every social media campaign is fraught with opportunities for people to make you look silly. It’s basically a cottage industry on the Internet – how can we embarrass brands today?
Google “Microsoft Nazi robot.” How some of the smartest people on Earth didn’t see that coming is amazing to me. How do you combat that? You either write it off as a cost of doing business, or you cultivate the most vanilla social media strategy on the planet. What you absolutely don’t do is create an artificial intelligence creature and allow Twitter users to be its parents.
What are some of the key components of a successful crisis communication strategy?
First, take a deep breath. No one should be saying anything publicly right away. Get everyone together – senior executives, legal, marketing and communications, operations – immediately.
One of the first priorities is to hammer out your communication protocols. Who is empowered to speak publicly? How are questions and requests for comment from the media handled? Who is fielding questions from customers, suppliers, consumers? Who owns social media channels? You won’t have your messages ready yet, but you need to plot out your communicators.
Second, take time to understand the facts of the matter at hand. This is not a time for spin; it is a time for honesty and internal reflection about and understanding of what exactly is going on.
Third, figure out how to fix the problem before trying to message the problem. Too much of crisis communication dogma is focused on finding the right spin.
BP tried to spin the Gulf oil spill by running millions of dollars of advertising about their advances in green energy. The public saw 24-hour coverage of oil flowing into the Gulf and collectively rolled its eyes.
What role does social media play in crisis communication?
First, it’s a great monitoring tool. What are your consumers saying? What are your detractors saying? Who is defending you?
Second, it’s a tool to disseminate your message, but be ready for immediate, direct negative feedback. Be careful.
What is one of the biggest mistakes organizations make in dealing with crises?
Employing crisis PR clichés. “We need to tell our side of the story/get in front of the story/be transparent.”
That’s rarely the right way to go in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. Sometimes your side of the story sucks. Focus on doing the hard work of fixing the problem. A good message on its own won’t make people like you.
How can you tell whether or not an issue will blow up into a crisis? How do you determine what issues to respond to?
My advice would be to assume everything you do is somehow going to blow up into a crisis. Be paranoid, like me.
The second question is a good one. It acknowledges that you don’t necessarily need a heavy-handed response every time somebody calls you a jerk. Don’t be too thin-skinned.
Do you have any advice for brands looking to strengthen their reputation?
Focus on creating value, not on your reputation. And when you get punched, it’s OK to hit back from time to time.
Rapid Fire Round
1. My biggest pet peeve is…whining about how something is not your fault.
2. I always thought I’d be…taller. Still holding out hope.
3. My hobbies outside of work include…spending time with my family and cultivating my obsessive devotion to Detroit sports teams.
4. If I was stuck on a desert island, I would…not last long.
5. My favorite social media platform is…Snapchat. I get irrationally excited when I discover a new geofilter while traveling.
6. The thing that gets me up in the morning is…my daughter yelling at me or punching me.
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