One thing is certain: A new scandal or crisis always seems to be around the next corner. Yet today, very few brands and celebrities know how to fully leverage the Internet when faced with a public relations crisis. Recent PR nightmares for JetBlue, Turner Broadcasting, Dell Computers and KFC-Taco Bell demonstrate that as the "social Web" evolves, the focus for brands needs to be less on digital marketing and more on digital brand management.
During the first few days of JetBlue's crisis, as the ice iced and de-iced on New York's runways, the airline's corporate communications department seemingly sat idle. But their customers did not. Dpstyles was sending photos from his phone to Flickr.com, DadLabs was uploading video to YouTube, Matt Linderman was posting "lessons from a JetBlue meltdown" on 37 Signals, and Genevieve McCaw bought herself the domain name JetBlueHostage.com.
Blogging on why a free return ticket wasn't adequate compensation for being stuck on a tarmac for 11 hours on Valentine's Day, McCaw, within four days of setting up her blog, was featured on CNN, had 75 pages of printed e-mails from fellow JetBlue customers and was finalizing a date to meet face-to-face with JetBlue CEO David Neeleman.
In time, Neeleman, confronting his first true test of consumer confidence, demonstrated that he, too, has a keen understanding of the social dynamics of the Web. After his admittedly slow initial response, rather than attempting to control the message Neeleman entered the conversation. He did it with a sincerity and humility that you don't often see coming from a corporate CEO. In getting the tonality right, JetBlue's message fit the medium. People began talking with them rather than at them. And in doing so, JetBlue was able to ultimately change the course of the dialog. JetBlue leveraged new Web 2.0 tools like YouTube in a manner that was unprecedented. In contrast to how Turner Broadcasting reacted to the Boston bomb scare and Yum Brands responded to rats in a New York Taco Bell, JetBlue made the Internet a cornerstone of its crisis management strategy.
The Internet accelerates and amplifies public opinion like nothing that has come before it. And because of this, the voice of the angry consumer has never been louder. Until recently, consumer complaints were limited to message boards and chat rooms. But as JetBlue realized, at times of crisis, while corporate communication experts are preparing manicured statements, customers are now blogging, e-mailing and posting photos out of rage and desperation because the very people who should be listening to them aren't.
Brands that get it right will be the ones that use the same online tools as their customers. But if what happened to JetBlue happened to your brand, how prepared would you be to enter "the discussion?" Are you currently an active participant in the community that you will need to speak to?
Today, while customers can act swiftly in the digital space—using fast publishing tools like blogs and wikis to amplify their arguments—most brands don't have the ability to move as quickly. These companies don't have the procedures in place that allow them to respond. Brands need to not only have access to the tools, but need to understand Web culture well enough to use the tools as effectively as their customers.
But just as ad agencies have been slow to adapt to the digital channel, so too have most PR agencies and internal corporate communications departments. What they have yet to realize is that the first place a growing number of people go to find out about what a company is doing during a crisis is not to their televisions or newspapers. It's straight to the Internet to see not only how the company is responding, but how fast that response is coming, and what others are saying about it.
What recent events demonstrate is that today any one Web site is only one node in a much larger conversation. Effective communication on the Web comes not from knowing how to launch a new campaign, but in knowing how it connects with everything else that is out there.
If you are a CEO today, you should be asking yourself: Do we have a digital crisis management strategy? Who are the people from our Web team that we need to have around the table if something were to go wrong? Do we have access to fast publishing tools like blogging software and wikis? Are we prepared to respond as effectively as our customers are prepared to speak out?
As more and more brands are learning, at a time of crisis the Internet will prove to be the most important communications channel you have.