Blessing & Curse: Technology in Crisis Communication

Blessing & Curse: Technology in Crisis Communication
4. February 2019 Falk Rehkopf

Blessing & Curse: Technology
in Crisis Communication

The way we see it, technology truly is a double-edged sword. Yes, all the technology we have at our fingertips today is instrumental in helping us crafting highly effective PR campaigns, but at the same time, increasing use of technology at large, social media and increasing popularity of interconnected, new technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT) also means that companies are more vulnerable to crises than ever.

Which role does technology play in creating and dissipating crises? What should PR pros do when facing a crisis? In this article, we answer all these questions – and more.

Crisis communication: a brief background

Not many realise this, but the PR industry has long been intertwined with crisis communication. Consider this: one of the first notable examples of PR was actually a work of crisis communication. Back in 1906, 53 people were killed in a train crash that involved Pennsylvania Railroad and the company employed Ivy Lee — one of the founding fathers of PR — to help soothe things over. Ivy drafted a statement for Pennsylvania Railroad to run in the New York Times and this came to be seen as the first press release ever published.

Today, PR practitioners dealing with crises have to take into account social media, the dark web and many other aspects of technology — and it’s not a stretch to say that crisis management is now more complex and daunting than it has ever been.

As American public relations specialist Gene Grabowski puts it, crises will “continue to be numerous and harder to manage”, because of “social media and increasing stakeholder sensitivities to public statements and actions on the part of celebrities, athletes and corporations.” Echoing the same sentiment is Kevin Elliot, the Managing Director of US risk and crisis communications at Hill+Knowlton. Kevin states that social media is “a ubiquitous force” — one that’s particularly influential in crisis management.

Set aside the fact that crises are becoming harder to handle and you’ll also realise that crises are becoming increasingly rampant. Consider this: in 2017, the Institute for Crisis Management tracked a total of 801,620 crisis news stories — that’s a whopping 25% increase from the number of crisis news stories in 2016. Given that crises are increasingly common these days, the question is no longer: will your client’s company undergo a crisis? Rather, it is: when will the company undergo a crisis?

Exactly what is crisis communication?

Simply put, crisis communication refers to a company’s efforts to communicate with the public when an unexpected or challenging event occurs. Here, the company is essentially trying to protect its image and maintain its reputation.

Generally speaking, crises can be grouped into four main categories: accidents and disasters, service mistakes, company scandals and competitor or lobbyists attacks. These days, many crises are technology-induced — for instance, an employee might accidentally leak your customer database (containing personal information) online or the damage that they cause to your company’s reputation might be amplified by social media mentions. In 2019, the average consumer is more plugged in than ever. Bearing this in mind, if your company makes an embarrassing PR blunder, it’s likely that news about this blunder will spread fast and wide. That’s why it’s crucial for companies to react quickly and in an appropriate manner when faced with unexpected incidents — and avoid creating a communication crisis.

Technology: crises trigger and solution

Following 2018 — the year of data breaches — it’s clearer than ever that technology can function as a trigger for crises. Cybercrime, for instance, is a great example of how technology could lead to a crisis unfolding. Now that we’re heavily reliant on technology in both our private and work lives, this opens up a lucrative opportunity for data theft. More specifically, the global cost of cybercrime is expected to reach $2 trillion by the end of this year which is a 3x increase from 2015.

Then there’s the media fragmentation which adds to the problem. These days, companies are subject to the scrutiny of bloggers and other influencers, web-based news outlets and “citizen journalists”. As such, businesses have to tread more carefully than ever; even then, they might find it difficult to avoid bad publicity.

If you’re looking for real-life examples of companies falling victim to technology-induced crises, these are many and varied. In October 2016, Uber lost 57 million drivers’ and customers’ details to cybercriminals (and even paid these criminals $100,000 to keep them quiet); in September 2017, credit agency Equifax disclosed that it underwent a massive cybersecurity attack that compromised the data of 143 million customers.

And in 2018, Marriott came clean about how 500 million of their guests had their data exposed to hackers. The incident resulted in a lot of media coverage and social mentions and impacted Marriott’s reputation extremely negatively as you can see below (credit: Adwired’s BrandTicker).

Facebook had a very difficult last year with many negative news stories on the company’s flawed security system, breaches and other data-related negative incidents. Despite all of these different events, the company’s brand proved to be fairly resilient with on the breaking of the Cambridge Analytica scandal putting a dent into the company’s reputation (credit: Adwired’s BrandTicker).

But, it’s not only companies suffering: In December 2018, Germany’s lower parliament was a victim to a powerful cyber attack which had breached the foreign ministry’s computer network with officials blaming the attack on a Russian hacking group.

While technology has, in many cases, created or contributed to crises, it would be unfair of us to point to technology as the root of all evil. In actual fact, technology also brings about a world of good and companies can make use of available tools and technology can also act as a solution for PR pros to mitigate crises.

First and foremost, PR pros can utilise crisis intelligence tools such as PRISMA Crisis Intelligence or Ubermetrics to monitor social media conversations for potential issues. This acts as a preventive measure — you’re essentially identifying issues in real-time and this allows you to react quickly and hopefully nip a problem in the bud. With these tools, companies can prevent small-scale PR mishaps from escalating into full-blown crises. 

Some insights that PR pros might monitor include:

  • Top influencer participation (proportion of mentions made by key media outlets and influencers)
  • Stakeholder group sentiment analysis and public brand perception
  • Threat intelligence: Identification of threats in real-time in combination with an effective alert system
  • Entire industries: With providers like Ubermetrics, communicators can now monitor entire industries and build up a substantial data repositories of relevant competitors, industry mags, social media accounts and much more. This database can help to inform decision-making within crisis situations and even address unforeseen issues.

Crisis prevention: is it possible?

If you’re wondering if it’s possible to prevent a PR crisis, the answer is a resounding yes.

Back in the day, PR pros didn’t have many tools to help them manage crises and they were pretty much at the mercy of whatever crisis came their way — but today, things are different. Companies are now more equipped to deal with crises, and with the right measures in place, it is possible to prepare for and in some cases prevent a crisis from happening.

Here are some of the things that PR pros can do to pre-empt a crisis:

  • Research the crises your industry has encountered over the years and learn from the mistakes that industry leaders and company spokespersons have made
  • Conduct a Vulnerability Audit and evaluate whether your company is sufficiently prepared to deal with a crisis
  • Use new, AI-driven tools to help spot patterns for example in social media posts in combination with sentiment to identify issues as fast as possible to then take action to avoid escalation
  • Start planning and training your staff on how to behave in and respond to a crisis.

To lessen the chances of your company being hit by a technology-induced crisis, here are some best practices to follow:

  • Be compliant with the GDPR and the data security laws that your country imposes
  • Develop a data security policy and ensure employee compliance
  • Develop an internal policy for equipment use
  • Encrypt confidential data, control data access and implement multiple levels of authentication
  • Patch vulnerabilities in computer software and back up data regularly
  • Use tools such as Agari to defend against zero-day attacks, phishing attempts and other data breach attempts
  • Create a data breach response plan: identify how to contain the breach and decide how you want to carry out breach notifications.

What to do when a crisis hits?

Assuming you have done your preparatory work and have a finalised crisis management plan, a trained crisis team and produced pre-draft crisis statements and possibly built dark websites, here are some tips and technologies which you could apply:

  • Respond to the public as quickly as possible;
  • Fact-check before you speak, so as to ensure accuracy
  • Be genuine in your apology
  • Express concern and sympathy for victims and compensate them if appropriate
  • Consider providing stress and trauma counselling to victims if appropriate.

Tools that a company might employ to help them cope with crises include:

  • Leverage mobile technology with crisis management apps such as RockDove
  • Crisis management software Eeedo
  • Social listening tools such as Ubermetrics and TweetDeck
  • EMNS (Emergency/Mass Notification Services) tool XMatters
  • Intelligence tool FireEye
  • Cyber threat intelligence tool Agari

Once the crisis is over, don’t return to business as per normal — remember to follow up with key stakeholders and take steps to ensure that a similar crisis does not happen again:

  • Deliver additional information promised to the public (or other stakeholders)
  • Keep the public updated on investigations, recovery process or corrective actions
  • Evaluate how the crisis was handled and come away with key insights that you can use to fine-tune the company’s crisis management strategy
  • Update corporate talking points. When you next speak to the media, it’s likely that they’ll ask about the crisis, so make sure representatives are prepared and know what should or should not be said.

A final word on crisis communication

Now that we have social media, bloggers, influencers, web-based news outlets and “citizen journalists” to fan the flames, companies are more susceptible to crises than ever.

That said, technology has given us a multitude of tools that we can use to prevent and handle crises — and with the right strategies implemented, companies CAN contain a problem and stop it from developing into a full-blown crisis. A word of advice? Don’t take your company’s reputation for granted and start fine-tuning your crisis management plan – and technology – today.

Chief Marketing Officer