Fireside / April 2017

In Case You Missed the Memo on the Importance of Social Media in PR- Read This.

PRSA Richmond’s April luncheon speaker, Dr. Donald K. Wright, wanted to make one point very clear: Digital media is absolutely vital to modern public relations departments. Dr. Wright is the Harold Burson professor and chair in public relations at Boston University’s College of Communication. Every statistic, metric, and case study from his research, a 12-Year Longitudinal Analysis Tracking Social and Digital Media Use in Public Relations Practice, points to the simple fact that PR professionals must take new media very seriously, or else suffer the (often very public) consequences.

The Death of Traditional News

Dr. Wright began his talk by discussing the downfall of the newspaper industry, especially at the local level. Newspaper Death Watch keeps a comprehensive list of those papers that have closed in the past few years, but even once-daily papers that have managed to stay afloat have in many cases switched to a three-day-a-week model to save money.

While traditional news consumption has fallen off a cliff, though, digital media use by consumers is rapidly expanding. This trend, according to Dr. Wright, means PR agencies have been forced to adapt to the new media climate, or watch their clients’ visibility and outreach suffer. His research shows that the time PR practitioners spend working with emerging media like blogs, social media, etc. has increased each year since 2015. In 2015, 29% of his respondents spent more than 25% of their working hours with social and digital media. That percentage increased to 36% in 2017 (Wright and Hinson 21). 75% of 2017 respondents think that PR or Communications should have the responsibility of monitoring and managing emerging media communication (Wright and Hinson 22). Still not convinced that digital media is inescapable in the field of PR? According to Dr. Wright, only 1% of the PR practitioners surveyed don’t spend any of their working time with digital media (Wright and Hinson 21).

These trends matter, because digital media empowers customers, subscribers, audiences, etc. Consumers are now one tweet, Facebook post, or Yelp review away from causing viral backlash against an organization. But even absent a crisis, maintaining public relations through print and broadcast are no longer tenable in this era of real-time status updates. To improve sales, maintain a positive public reputation, and quickly disseminate news and information, PR departments must dedicate substantial resources to digital media. To highlight this point, Dr. Wright used a series of good, bad, and ugly case studies:

The Good

In 2015, McDonalds’ sales were reaching record lows. But, together with communications firm Golin, McDonalds was able to use new media to boost their sales by identifying the service a huge part of their consumer following craved: All day breakfast. During his talk, Dr. Wright said that Golin found more than 300,000 people had mentioned all-day breakfast on Twitter between 2007-2015. When they announced the debut of all day breakfast, it trended on Twitter and Facebook for more than five hours, and received more than 340 tweets per minute (Wright and Hinson 32)!

Dr. Wright’s statistics are clear: The announcement generated 245 media placements, 1,100 influencer brand engagements and 48 mentions in earned media stories. McDonald’s stock rose 25% in one quarter, and store sales recorded their strongest quarter in four years (Wright and Hinson 33)!

The Bad

For every all day breakfast, however, there is a viral video that severely damages consumer trust in a brand. Dominos experienced exactly this in 2009 when a video surfaced of two employees, among several more disgusting things, spitting on food before serving it to customers.

However, Dominos was able to combat the viralness of this video with a video of its own. President Patrick Doyle filmed his own YouTube video apologizing to his customers. Through directness, sincerity, and quickness, Dominos was able to avert a major hit.

The Ugly

And for every gross Dominos video, there is, well, are, several United Airlines fiascos. Back in 2008, digital media was used to strike at United when a passenger, Dave Carroll, had his guitar broken by the airline. He promptly posted a song on YouTube called “United Breaks Guitars.” Rather than replacing the $3,500 guitar, United watched as the video went viral, and they lost millions in reputation and business.

More recently, United suffered social media heat when they refused to allow two teenage passengers, who were using a United benefit that allows employees and their dependents to fly for free on a standby basis, to wear leggings on board. And somehow even more recently, United became a top global news story when a passenger was forcibly removed from one of their airplanes because United had overbooked the flight.

What United shows perhaps better than any other company is that new media makes organizations’ reputations instantly vulnerable. While Dominos was able to get in front of its problem with speed and sincerity, United failed to adequately communicate with its consumers. And when United CEO Oscar Munoz did communicate, he showed a noticeable lack of empathy.

What we at Wireside took away from Dr. Wright’s speech is that, ultimately, technology has consequences. As we exist in a time that is shifting away from traditional newspapers to the new media of Twitter, Facebook, and beyond, it is important to stay on top of the tools and systems that allow PR professionals to best share an organization’s message. As McDonald’s and United show, new media giveth, but new media also taketh away.

It’s PR, not ER. How to Triage a Crisis

PRSA Richmond’s Crisis Planning and Communications professional development session began – how else? – with a crisis. The session’s scheduled presenter, Padilla Owner Brian Ellis, was called away to help handle an unexpected client development, so in stepped Mike Mulvihill, Padilla’s executive VP, to help us explore the unpredictable world of crisis communications.

The New Media Landscape

We began by discussing the evolution of media and consumption. The past 20 years have been marked by a distinct shift towards a digital news landscape. Today, more news is being consumed online, and is often first reported by non-journalist citizens. On Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and other sites heavily featuring user-generated content, anyone with a phone (and, by extension, a camera) can provide a first-hand account of breaking news. Citizen journalism is the new norm, and it is altering how organizations react in a crisis.

Now more than ever, speed is vital when a crisis arises. Mike described the media as a constantly eating beast and, with social media and new live technologies, an organization may be in the beast’s mouth before all the members of that organization are aware a crisis has occurred. An effective response is built on preparedness. Mike and Padilla recommend doing the following before a crisis breaks out:

Anticipate threats: Murphy’s Law dictates, roughly, that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. While your organization does not need to be as pessimistic as Murphy, highlighting your key vulnerabilities puts you in front of future crises. The owner of a pipeline needs to be prepared for that pipeline to leak. Chemical companies need to prepare for spills. Data storage providers should be prepared for their sensitive information to be hacked. Hopefully your organization will never need to utilize these plans, but when a crisis arises, you will surely be glad to have formulated – and practiced – your response.

Define your role: All the major players in an organization should have clearly defined roles in the event of a crisis. Who will be handling internal communications? What about external communications? Who is the designated spokesperson for the media? What about investors? While the list of roles goes on, assigning them before a crisis ensures an organization’s response can begin immediately after the crisis breaks.

Prepare your first three steps: After roles have been assigned, each individual should have a list of the first three things they will do in crisis-mode. Speed is vital in the first hour of the crisis, and having a checklist for each role will allow an organization to move quickly without getting muddled in extended deliberations. While working together as one unit is vital, a ‘first-three-steps’ plan of action for each person’s role allows for a cohesive autonomy and a speedy response.

Develop core messaging: Organizations needs to speak with one voice in crisis communications. Developing the core messages before a crisis occurs will keep everyone in any organization on the same page, and will help it to be proactive in combatting the confusion, lies, and misinformation that run rampant when a breaking news story first starts trending online.

A Heist at the Children’s Museum

Imagine you work on the executive board at the Ellisville Children’s Museum, which is consistently ranked as one of the “Top 10” in the nation with support from major corporations like Apple, Toyota, and Northrup Grumman. Your phone rings at 5:00 AM, you pick up, and a local reporter unleashes a barrage of questions. “We’ve received reports that the museum’s CEO and CFO have embezzled millions of dollars and have skipped town – can you confirm?” “Who’s in charge?” “Has the FBI been notified?”

This is the scenario my team was given during the workshop-portion of the development session, and we had one major obstacle: We weren’t given time to formulate an action plan before the crisis broke out. So, our first efforts were focused on discovery and containment. We decided to appoint one teammate, Paige, our lead spokesperson. By 10:00 AM, we had contacted the FBI and issued a statement to the press, on our website, and via social media. We did not offer much comment on the issue, citing the FBI’s ongoing investigation, but asked the media to contact Paige with inquiries.

Our team recalled the vitalness of internal communications during a crisis and, after deciding to maintain normal operating hours, convened our employees to inform them of the situation. In-person and via email, we asked them not to comment, and not speculate, to reporters.

As the ‘day’ wore on, the FBI confirmed that the money had been embezzled, and that the CEO and CFO not only worked to steal the money, but had been hiding a relationship as well. It became the “Crime of the Century” in the Ellisville Tribune. To reduce speculation, we decided to provide the press with hourly updates, confirming the money was stolen while reasserting the Children Museum’s commitment to community enrichment. We bolstered our credibility by hiring a third-party auditor to determine how the money was embezzled.

While our team responded well to the heist, we could have improved our performance by more clearly defining our roles. For example, Paige became our general spokesperson, but we should have appointed two— one to lead external communications and one to lead internal communications with our investors and employees. We also should have appointed someone to regularly canvas social media to gain perspective on the community’s reaction. More than anything, this exercise reinforced the importance of planning. A pre-planned response will always be more effective than one put together mid- crisis.

Crisis IQ

If you’re interested in improving your company’s own crisis preparedness, start by taking Padilla’s Crisis IQ quiz. According to Mike, 71% of those who take the quiz are not adequately prepared in the event of a crisis. Around 55% don’t have a crisis management plan, 66% do not practice their plan often enough (Padilla recommends once per year), and 85% ignore social media when drafting a plan.

It is, admittedly, highly unlikely that your CEO and CFO, after hiding a secret romance, will abscond with $10 million embezzled from your company. But your organization’s fortunes can falter at the drop of a hat. Having an organized, well-practiced crisis communications plan will ensure damage control begins before that hat hits the floor.