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?