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Reputation and Crisis in the Digital Age

By Glynn Young, APR, PRSA Fellow
PRSA St. Louis Communication Co-Chair

One can’t say we didn’t see the crisis coming. We had six weeks to prepare for it.

People were organizing a worldwide protest against my organization. The plan was for a large number of protests all over the globe, involving millions of people. Hundreds if not thousands were to show up at our headquarters location.

It was also to be a digital protest, primarily utilizing Facebook and Twitter. In the time before fake news began grabbing the social media giants by the throat, their “community standards” were rather fluid and flexible. Twitter informed us that a death threat against a company executive, including his home address and a bounty for killing him, did not violate their terms of service. That is, until something similar happened to Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s founder. Terms of service changed then, and quickly.

With thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, preparing a Twitter storm and occupation of our Facebook page, what were our options?

Issue a statement for the news media.

Ride out the digital storm, essentially ignoring it, and heighten security at all locations.

Do something way outside a big company’s comfort zone and figure how to be both pro-active and responsive digitally, knowing that we would never convince protestors but that the real issue was with customers and other important communities.

The answers were neither easy nor obvious. All had advantages and disadvantages.

Most organizations will likely never face that kind of digital storm, but all organizations need to understand that crisis preparation and planning has to include a digital component, perhaps even making digital response the primary component. Social media amplify, and even a small crisis can look huge on social media.

Linda Locke, Senior Vice President and Partner at Standing Partnership, will address those kinds of questions at the next PRSA St. Louis meeting on June 21. She’ll lead an interactive session on “Planning for Crisis in the Digital Age” that will help attendees understand how to plan and implement a crisis response. More information on the event can be found here.

And what happened with my company?

The millions who were said to be physically protesting in dozens of cities around the globe turned out to be something less than 100,000. About 20 protesters showed up at our headquarters, against a pre-event claim of “thousands.”

Digitally, it was entirely different. Digital platforms are much easier for mounting and staging a protest, or even giving the appearance of a protest. It was in the digital world that the promised protest indeed materialized.

I’ll describe what happened and what we did next week.

Top photograph by rawpixel via Unsplash. Used with permission.

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