Real vs. Fake Social Media Crises

Last week, I had the honor of representing PRSA at an American Conference Institute panel on managing social media crises in the digital age. Joining me on the panel were three whip smart PR execs in Sandy D’Elosua (Front Burner Brands), John Moran (Schwartz MSL) and Jenny Dervin (JetBlue Airways Corporation).

Our full presentation is embedded below, but let me just say that my commentary paled in comparison to what my fellow panelists offered. Especially Ms. Dervin, vice president of corporate communications at what may be the epicenter for crisis communications management in the digital age: JetBlue.

Ms. Dervin talked about how the company managed its crisis response around the infamous Steven Slater incident. She noted that when Mr. Slater activated the plane’s emergency chute, the force of the chute landing on the tarmac was equal to that of a bullet shot from a gun. In other words, as she noted, it could have killed, or seriously injured, anyone standing directly under it.

Talk about a real crisis situation.

Not All Crises Are Created Equal

That got me thinking that a lot of time what we think are crises aren’t really that. They are minor flare-ups that, because of social media and the 24/7, hyperconnected age we live and work in, often get blown out of proportion. This happens either because of our inability to see the forest through the trees (i.e., see reality beyond our company’s/client’s four walls) or because the media and social media gurus report before facts are straight, and thus, cause hysteria to ensue.

My point about real crises versus faux crises starts to become clearer when one thinks of the JetBlue incident. What JetBlue faced was truly a corporate crisis. Its own employee had engaged in an activity that not only put those on an airplane in harm’s way, but also those on the ground. And he did so in a reckless and irresponsible manner, in an industry that is rife with daily concerns over safety. That fits the definition of a crisis situation to a tee.

So what are the crises, or “PR nightmares” that the media and bloggers love to play up? Quite often, it is the absurdities, situations that 10 years ago you wouldn’t have even bothered to take 20 seconds to read on Yahoo News, but now, with the ubiquity of social media, garner far more attention than they deserve and get completely blown out of proportion.

To be sure, there are many real and serious crises — whether human, corporate, environmental, you name it — every day. These are serious incidents that require experienced PR and communications professionals to help manage the response and inform the public.

But a lot of what the media likes to call a “PR nightmare” is just blown up hysterics over a situation that is likely little more than a digital skirmish that has gone viral.

In the digital age, when will we finally realize that a bad situation “going viral” isn’t a “PR nightmare” no more than it is a PR crisis?

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  • Great post, Keith. Thanks for bringing us back into realistic perspective.

    • My pleasure, Kelly. Though I can’t take much credit for that. It really should go to Jenny Dervin at JetBlue. Hearing about the real-time, incredibly intense and serious crises the airline faces almost daily really put the whole issue of social media crises into perspective. Having your client blasted by Gawker pales in comparison to facing a plane that has just crash landed with no wheels. Quite the difference in perspective of a true crisis.

  • Megan

    This topic has me going back and fourth on a few things. I too often think situations get blown out of proportion simply because it is so easy for anything to go viral these days. But stepping back for a moment, what defines a “PR nightmare” exactly? I would say a PR nightmare is a situation in which an organization cannot or fails to communicate mutually with its publics, whether by the organizations fault or by an uncontrollable variable. So, in a sense, a PR nightmare can be anything so long as the public is unfavorably communicating about it (especially through social media). Just because things are a small deal to some, they can be a huge deal to others. 

    • Good point, Megan, and thanks for sharing. I agree that what seems like a small deal to some may be a huge issue for others. But I think far too often that what the media calls a “PR nightmare” is really just an example of a company not living up to its responsibilities to its customers. And I’d argue that’s not PR’s job. Certainly, we play a role in communicating an org’s responsibilities to its customers, but are really supposed to be the arbiters of that?

      But perhaps part of this issue stems from the fact that we in the PR industry like to trumpet our role and value in enhancing and protecting a company’s reputation. And when it is perceived by the public or media that something that the company has done is causing its reputation to go south, then it’s probably a natural conclusion of some that this is PR’s fault and, thus, a “PR nightmare.”

  • Anneweiskopf

    Agree with what @b92d7877dccb31f1050d8c1804cb2abb:disqus says below. I think the key is addressing something quickly BEFORE it reaches crisis proportions.  Thought the slides on how to prepare, monitor and review crisis situations and how they were handled, is excellent.  Thanks for posting.

    • Thanks for chiming in, Anne. My pleasure on posting those slides. All the credit goes to my fellow panelists, John Moran, Sandy D’Elousa and Jenny Dervin. A great group of really smart PR pros. 

  • Sara

    Your post makes perfect sense to me. I would define a PR nightmare as when a public relations campaign/situation/team makes a major mistake in representing the company nor individual. I do not know if I would classify this as apublic relations nightmare since the public relations team for Dominos did not actually post this but when the video fo the employees messing around while they were making a pizza was put on the internet and went viral. Either way nightmare or crisis that was a very horrible situation that Dominos public relations team had to deal with immediately. Other circumstances such as when a small toy or applicance is not built to the best of its ability or a food chain releases something new that does not go over well with the public, would not be a public relations nightmare I feel that it could be a mini crisis since the company does not want its consumers to think the rest of their products or entrees are like the defigured one.

  • Nicely done (wish I could have been there), but darn you, @keithtrivitt:disqus, this was going to be the topic of my (probably) next #PR column on @nealschaffer:disqus’s Windmill Networking Blog! (I will keep yours in mind and possibly link to it.)

    I had already planned to reference the (truly wonderful) cover article from  @prsa:disqus  ‘s The Strategist from a couple of years ago, which detailed how Domino’s Pizza really didn’t have a “crisis,” even though a lot of social media pundits would have had the public think it so. (Continued kudos to @johnelsasser for dedicating prime real estate magazine space to this company and topic.)

    • Hah! Didn’t mean to mess with your column idea, Judy. It’s just those folks at JetBlue do such amazing crisis comms work that I had to write about it while it was still fresh in my mind.

      Seriously, JetBlue could write a book on effective crisis comms in the digital age and I bet it would get read by tons of PRs.

      Appreciate your reading and commenting.

  • KristinM

    This was a really good post!  It caused me to step back and really think about what constitutes a true crisis when it comes to PR.  The example you gave with JetBlue really makes some of the trivial issues gone viral seem small in comparison.  It was really interesting thinking back on the Slater situation that the injury the chute could have caused was hardly mentioned in any of the stories I read, if it was mentioned at all.  Had an injury occurred, the situation from a PR perspective could have been very different.

  • Anonymous

    While I agree that many incidents may be blown out of proportion largely due to social media, I wonder if they can be crises. Even if the incident is not considered a huge deal, if it does go viral and starts to create a negative or problematic view of a company, couldn’t it become a crises? I think the power of anything going viral can in fact turn a “smaller incident” into a “PR nightmare”.

  • I would say that any negative mentions in social media is a PR problem.  Of course, there are varying degrees of “crisis” but what matters most is how it’s handled.  It’s important to have a crisis/reputation management strategy in place so that it doesn’t get out of hand.  

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