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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  • Nice job, Keith.

    Of course, every action has an opposite reaction. Yes, insta-information and social networks spread these situations like wildfire. But, unless it’s an uber-crisis (Deepwater Horizon, Toyota recalls), I’m not sure that crisis situations have the same effect on the public as they did a decade ago. Back in those stone ages, there were focal points through three TV news networks and a few national agenda-setting publication. I’m not saying that was better…but I am thinking those fewer focal points led to more of an impact on the public’s collective psyche.

    We’re so bombarded with information and bad news and instapunditry and misinformation and overreactions and blogging-without-listening and on and on — everything we absorb becomes a run-on sentence. (See what I did there? Heh, heh.)

    Perhaps Huxley was right. What we generally fear is “restricted information” (e.g., Orwell). But what can be equally numbing is information overload.

    Regardless, I fully agree with your final sentence. We’re buckling up for a big year.

    • Thanks for your perspective, J.D. Always good to have insight from one of the true experts in the crisis management field.

      You make a good point about the lack of true focal points within the media reshaping how people perceive and react to a crisis and a company’s response. Do you think we have reached that point of so much media saturation, overreaction, coverage, etc. of crises and events that people have largely become numb to their effect and impact, unless, like you say, they are of the “uber-crisis” variety?

      • I think more situations are having a briefer, shallower impact. I don’t have any science to back this up…just a gut feel. Perhaps this is the germ of an idea for my next blog post….

  • Mayor Bloomberg got us off to a great start in 2011 with crisis communication. Just as a leader can loose control of a crisis situation online, they can also use Twitter and social media to control it. Although, I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone truly successfully manage a crisis well online. Well, maybe the Louisiana Office of Homeland Secuirty. @GOSEHP. They do a pretty great job.

    Whitney in Baton Rouge

  • Jgstreed, APR

    This is a helpful reminder to us about crisis communications. We’ve always advised clients or spokespeople to demonstrate empathy when they talk about the situation, but we used to have time to prepare their comments or coach them on those [empathy] skills before the cameras rolled or the microphones were on. In the era you describe, time is compressed to such an extent leaders need to be “on” all the time. Thanks for the reminder.

    • That’s a very interesting point you make about demonstrating empathy during a crisis, and the challenges of doing so in an era where there is almost no time to figure out anything, for many of the reasons that J.D. cites in his comment above.

      What have been some successful strategies you have found for developing a successful level of empathy among executives, while also helping them to realize that they are now always “on”?

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