New Realities Emerging in Crisis Communications

Boy, was last week a tough one for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. With his city stung by a 20-inch blizzard, its sixth-worst on record, and massive delays in cleaning up the mess, “Mayor Mike” managed to put his foot in his mouth for what will likely not be the last time in his political career.

Saying Monday that #snowloko was “inconvenient,” while urging New Yorkers to see a Broadway show (seemingly oblivious to the fact that millions of outer-borough residents were literally trapped in their homes — and would be for several days — because of his administration’s mismanagement and bungling of the cleanup effort) Bloomberg perfectly exemplified a new reality that is starting to emerge in crisis management in the digital age: words, much like images, can make or break you.

What we’re seeing now is that executives’ words often can hurt, or help them, just as much, if not more, than the imagery, visuals and advertising their companies uses. While this has likely been true for quite some time, the speed and ubiquity of social media have made it far more apparent and consequential.

Therefore, it behooves the wise and savvy executive to consider the interplay, and potential dichotomy of their words and images, whenever faced with a crisis or situation that calls for decisive words and actions that won’t leave customers or constituents skeptical.

Otherwise, they end up with an image like this one running on, showing a city in which on one side, a very rich mayor tells his constituents that everything is fine, while the picture shows quite the opposite, a scene reminiscent of a wintry apocalypse.

Bloomberg’s condescending remarks to his constituents last week were not nearly as bad as those uttered by former BP CEO Tony Hayward, when he stated, “I’d like my life back,” while apologizing for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, they did offer an  excellent illustration of the challenges of reputation management in the digital age

We’ve entered an era where an executive’s words can be squeezed down into easily digestible (and retweetable) 140 characters, with a link to a picture showing the exact opposite of what they are saying, a folly with words can be just as fatal as one with the visuals of a company’s thoroughly-planned (and heavily financed) advertising.

Buckle up, friends. It’s going to be a crazy year in crisis management …

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