Public Relations in Times of Crisis

By: Tom Donda

April has been a month of tragedy for many living in the United States and around the world. Crisis situations like those of the Boston Marathon bombing, fertilizer plant explosion in Waco, Texas, and earthquake in the Sichaun province of China are typically followed by a social media frenzy, as citizens take to the Internet for answers in a time of confusion.

Social media can be a blessing in times of crisis by providing a constant stream of news updates, photos, and videos. However, social media leads to rumors. Recently, an online witch hunt on Reddit, a popular user-generated content site, lead to the misidentification of an innocent Brown University student as the suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing.  Leaked information included a photo of the student, his name, and age. These rumors, especially in crisis situations, can have detrimental consequences on innocent people who can be wrongfully accused of atrocious actions. Individuals, and especially brands, have a responsibility to use credible and objective information during a crisis to prevent rumors from disseminating through social media.

Scott Monty, social media chief at Ford, tweeted similar advice stating, “If you manage social media for a brand, this would be a good time to suspend any additional posts for the day.” However, some companies took to Twitter to pay respect to the victims. Men’s Health Magazine tweeted, “Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone at the #Boston Marathon right now. #PrayForBoston.” These conflicting strategies for crisis management make responding ethically and effectively difficult for public relations professionals.

Gil Rudawsky, senior director of communications at GroundFloor Media in Denver, offers eight guidelines PR professionals should keep during a crisis:

  1. A PR professional’s initial response should be for the victims and their families in a time of crisis. It is important to always know your audience, especially in times of tragedy.
  2. Acknowledge social media as a source of news. However, it is up to the PR professional to decipher credible information from unreliable content.
  3. Maintain professionalism while dealing with the media and the community, but don’t be hesitant to show emotions at times when compassion is needed.
  4. Keep in mind that the news coverage will cease, however, the mourning of victims and their families will continue for years.
  5. Work closely with law enforcement. In times of legal uncertainty it is best to use a consistent voice from the top of the hierarchical pyramid.
  6. Prevent leakage in sources. This will help the news media use consistent confidants.
  7. Don’t hesitate to say ‘we don’t know.’ Giving false information to stay relevant and up-to-date is not worth jeopardizing journalistic integrity and the investigation at hand.
  8. Provide a strict briefing schedule. This will keep information consistent, building confidence in one’s brand.

Social media can be a PR professional’s main tool in the earliest stages of a crisis, disseminating information to consumers as quickly as possible.  However, social media has been found to spread inaccurate information, leading news media to report false information about the Boston Bombing suspects.  It’s clear how these tools can further complicate times of crisis. The key is to stay objective while disseminating relevant information to the public in a sensible and respectful manner. It will be interesting to see how future crises impact the role of social media in the PR sector and whether a strict
industry protocol is needed for online etiquette during such times.

Feeding the media machine during the Virginia Tech crisis

I can remember the fear and terror I felt as a college student when I first heard of the Virginia Tech massacre.  It is a sad reality that I was used to hearing about high school shootings, and nearly every school established a lockdown protocol to handle those situations as they arise. 

Virginia Tech was widely criticized for failing to notify students and faculty immediately after the first incident had occured.  The shooting issue had grown legs, now college campuses had to have a response plan so that students and faculty would be safe if such a crisis occured at their school.

In the midst of finger-pointing and the “blame game,” Jeffrey Douglas kept his composure and utilized effective communication after the shootings on the Virginia Tech campus last April.  Douglas disclosed the logistics of handling a “tragedy of monumental proportions” to a large crowd at the PRSSA National Conference 2008 in Detroit on Saturday, Oct. 25.  On April 16, 2007, the media frenzy included over 1,000 reporters, 150 satelite trucks and 150,000 web hits per hour on the school’s homepage.

He shared with the audience the three phases of crisis communications: managing the emergency, stabilizing the wounded and resurrection.  They had to instill confidence that the university was in control of the situation, while making the care and concern of the victims and family priority one. 

His advice for those who will be in similar situations is to communicate as soon as you can.  Because of the Virginia Tech massacre we now have HawkAlert at the University of Iowa, which sends text messages and makes automated phone calls when there is an emergency on campus.

A year and a half later, Virginia Tech is focusing on recovery and rebuilding a stronger community.

Stay tuned for more posts about the PRSSA National Conference 2008!