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Crises in the Digital Age: Back to First Things

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

I was working for a large corporation, one that made stuff some people didn’t like. Those “some” people were also quite adept with using social media. And a protest was coming, one that supposedly would involve millions of people across the globe protesting in their home cities.

The plan was for millions more to protest via social media, especially twitter and Facebook.

We had about six weeks to plan. When you know a physical protest is coming, you usually know the drill. Pull together a team of security, communications, and other experts to address what might happen and what might be demanded. Designate a spokesperson for the news media. Prepare your messages. Practice. Coordinate with local law enforcement officials, particularly if traffic might be disrupted.

For the digital protest, we did much of the same, except we also involved IT people and digital security. We had had experiences with denial of service attacks on the web site, and there was always stuff on social media, but we really had no experience in dealing with a digital protest, the forms it might take, and the fact that it might last for days around the clock.

We did a lot of monitoring of social media. The protestors were mostly quite open about what they planned to do, but they spoke in generalities, not specifics. We did a lot of analyses of what we were seeing, brainstorming how things might go, and what options we had in responding.

The smartest thing we did was to identify the key stakeholders: customers, employees, and investors. We never considered the protestors as a group to be stakeholders; their minimum demand was that we shut down the business. But there were a few critics who were more reasonable and might listen. But out focus had to be on customers, employees, and investors. And the one thing all three groups needed to see was that the company would not give in and, in fact, would defend itself.

The physical protests were set for a Saturday; the digital protests were, too, but they started on Friday morning. We had anticipated that in our planning. The digital critics were so excited and enthusiastic that they tipped their hands too early, and we realized what they had planned – to flood Twitter with anti-company sentiments and “occupy” the company Facebook page with thousands of comments.

Using Tweetdeck, we scheduled a tweet from the company every two-and-a-half minutes, from Friday morning to Sunday might. We tweeted third party defenses of company products, comments by third parties on activist groups’ statements, positive things the company’s products did and what the company did in communities around the world. This emanated from headquarters, but our communications colleagues in other U.S. and global cities followed our lead. We didn’t stop the protest on Twitter, but our customers, employees, and investors knew we were standing up for the company and fighting back.

What we did on Facebook was more controversial. By late Friday morning, we were already seeing scores of comments being left on posts – profanities, emojis, long-winded statements, photos, drawings, slogans, and lots of other things. We were advised by outside counsel to do nothing, to demonstrate how open and transparent we were.

We ignored that advice: why should the company allow protestors to take over its Facebook page? What did that communicate to our key stakeholder groups? Would we be showing transparency, or would it look like a combination of not knowing what to do and cowardice?

We began systematically to delete and republish posts, effectively deleting thousands of protesting comments in one quick action. By the time we started, some posts already had thousands of comments. Within about three minutes, the posts were back – the protesting comment gone.

The protesters screamed we were being unfair. The comments kept coming, and we kept deleting and republishing. We would do quick scans of the comments and report the threats of death and violence to Facebook. We reported hundreds of people.

By Saturday night, the protestors got bored. Comments began to trickle down to almost nothing. We soon began to hear from our stakeholder groups – we had seen what had happened and they knew that company had stood up for its products, its business, its customers, and its people.

You may never face that magnitude of a protest or attack on reputation, but the odds are good that you and your organization or client will have to face some kind of digital crisis at some point.

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, 2018. 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.

Photograph by Markus Spiske via Unsplash. Used with permission.

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