Or how, in the words of Dr. Peter Sandman, ignorance can lead to enthusiasm as easily as to panic. He was the first to define how risk in this context equals hazard plus outrage. In other words, people are already predisposed to getting upset when activists, pundits, and journalists -- all with a propensity to alarm people as part of their agenda -- do just that.
These groups known how to plug into that mechanism and engage herd behavior and ride its wave. Winning a cause, looking to pitch themselves to a potential client, and gaining readership are their respective goals.
Stirring the pot is especially easy when the organization goes silent.
A crisis can emerge from the mishandling of communications about an incident. Right or wrong, perception or reality, ignoring or misleading people (those formerly known as public) is a losing strategy. I've written it before, the genesis of crisis through social media resembles more risk communications.
The exception that confirms the rule: BP
There are true disasters. Although BP butchered and mishandled communications to an epic degree -- so much so that it left the field wide open for someone who goes by Leroy Stick -- what the company caused has catastrophic repercussions. Stick gained a large following on Twitter @BPGlobalPR by saying what so many were thinking -- show us the truth.
The current issue of PRSA The Strategist covers some of this story, so I won't duplicate it. When we talk about crisis, we should think communication about action. This is especially true when the hazard is real and serious. When you have an oil spill of BP's proportion, it is a disaster. You should not attempt to treat differently, not in your actions, nor in your communications.
Quoting from the article: As Leroy Stick said in an interview with Ad Age: “This isn’t a PR nightmare, it’s an actual nightmare.” BP won’t be able to fix its reputation until it fixes the leak — and even the best communications effort couldn’t overcome that crisis. This is even truer today as the Internet has proven effective at exposing the gap between what companies say and what they actually do.
If you're looking for proof that what Leroy Stick resonated, run a search with his name, and see the stories in Mother Jones, CNBC, The Huffington Post, Mashable, Daily Finance, etc.
The new PR needs to learn how to handle risk communications
Not to downplay what resonates with communities, in many cases, the hazard is mild, or isolated. Company experts evaluate risk by calculating its magnitude times its probability. People don't measure or estimate risk the same way.
The terms Dr. Sandman uses are not perfect, linguistically. Hazard is a technical term you probably wouldn't use, unless you're a risk manager, and outrage implies the anger or upset is justified. We should keep this imprecision in mind, as we focus on risk communications.
A gap in perception can crater your best efforts as communicator. Because company experts will invariably have a cavalier attitude towards public outrage, and the public will misunderstand the nature of the hazard -- which shows up as "I don't care about the technicalities, this is bad by me."
You need to learn how to navigate this dichotomy to handle as crisis in social.
12 questions to ask in risk communication
When people assume risk voluntarily, they have a lesser chance of getting upset. The same is true when they understand the implications of a decision *they* make. In other words, being in control, retaining the power to decide whether to opt in, even when you can opt out, there is no outrage.
An example of that is sky diving -- you decide if you want to jump out of a plane on your own. Although plenty of things can go wrong -- in other words, the activity is inherently dangerous -- you assume that risk. So there is no outrage.
In Responding to Community Outrage (Amazon affiliate link), Dr. Sandman lists 12 questions that will help you in understanding where outrage comes from:
- is is voluntary or coerced? (as in the example above)
- is is natural or industrial?
- is it familiar or exotic?
- is it not memorable or memorable?
- is it not dreaded or dreaded?
- is it chronic or catastrophic?
- is it knowable or not knowable?
- is it controlled by me or others?
- is it fair or unfair?
- is it morally irrelevant or morally relevant?
- can I trust you or not?
- is the process responsive or unresponsive?
Why companies that embrace new media face lower outrage
By now, after reading that list of questions, you are probably figuring out part of why on your own. Take the last one and think about your process. Is your company showing this in online interactions?
- does the company look open or secretive?
- are customer service people apologetic or do they seem to be stonewalling?
- are representatives courteous or rude?
- does the organization share or go against community values?
- do the communications teams show compassion, or do they come across as dispassionate?
Responsive wins. So does establishing a trusting relationship, communicating about the actions you are taking, given what you know so far, etc.
You need to combine this information with hands on experience in building advocacy groups and facilitating communities. Working with activist groups gives you additional and precious insights. I have great respect for the work Greenpeace did with Green my Apple, for example.
There are many organizational barriers to understanding risk communication. However, to avert a PR crisis, especially when they are active in social, businesses need to change in favor of embracing those questions, and supporting their community managers with plans, training, and faster decision making at the top.
Start with those who champion a more open approach, and help them open the dialogue inside your organization. Will PR professionals accept they may have a lot to learn from digital marketers, for example? Who is the executive sponsor in social?
[image courtesy of free 2 be]
On October 27, I will discuss social crisis communication in a Powered Webinar. Mark your calendar and stay tuned for more information.