Crisis Byte: An Online Shark Attack or Fishy Little Nibbles?

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Crisis, “PR disaster” or #epicfail: labels with a lot of subjective latitude in the fast-moving stream of social media opinion

When assessing this super-sized instalment of Bytes from the PR Sphere, I’m casting a line of request to keep a fishy image in mind that reeled me in oceans of time ago. Attending a Toronto client presentation from a media monitoring company, a senior staffer from its Chicago head office captured our attention with a screen image of a large, loosely woven net, plus a number of fish—of varying sizes, commonplace looking and exotic—swimming into or through the mesh. My memory of his premise: don’t deem all media “catches” equally in your analysis. Ensnaring “one [big] fish, two fish, green fish, blue fish” is superior in terms of a qualitative bite, in juxtaposition to a quantitative number of much smaller fish (e.g., capturing hundreds of innocuous little minnows that together might not even fill a bucket; ergo, very little “meat” or substance). On the organizational menu of PR media goals, perhaps medium-sized or exotic fish are the ones you want to bring home—reeling in influential ethnic media or industry-specific publications. Those fish might prove more effective in increasing profile about an organization’s product, service or program, plus growing brand reputation and value. This fishing image became a pragmatic filter in measuring the success or not of media relations strategies and organizational profile outcomes. Building up a bank of lasting trust is significant, especially in the unfortunate event of a corporate crisis. What does this have to do with the vicious, shark-like byte of a perceived online crisis? Ultimately, this post’s thesis is to flip around the image and equation of “netting” the attention of larger-sized or exotic fish for measurable, qualitative PR outcomes, to a fishy-sniff-test assessment of how much weight to place on numerous schools of small fish (or medium-sized ones in relative isolation) identified as briefly nibbling away, online, at your organizational reputation. What is the baseline for a true crisis or disaster? Whether waking up to CBC Radio, watching a morning show and evening newscasts, reading (print or online) one or more of the four daily papers available in Toronto or online monitoring of international media and social media news feed streams, the information needs of this self-proclaimed news junkie are well served. The question is the amount of time and attention to spend—where and on what? Monitoring media allows one to stay informed and have a worldview (local, national and global) and perspective about news, events and opinions shaping people, countries and organizations, good and bad. Often the media is filled with crises and disasters—economic, political, social and environmental: A global financial meltdown. Starvation in Africa. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis and flooding in many parts of the world. An operational fail that impacts workers’ lives, the economy and location. Dictators and/or governments overturned, sometimes after violent protests by activists and the general populace. These are scenarios where countries, businesses and individuals are directly affected: victims of illness, death, violence, imprisonment, displacement, environmental impact, loss of livelihood or privacy. These are true crises. Many are disasters. Most relate to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. These things almost always originate offline. Social business reputation reality check This column examines what, if anything, qualifies as an online-generated crisis, PR disaster or #epicfail and how much attention to pay to them. Because far too often such words are tossed out in blog posts or as YouTube comments, on Twitter and various discussion groups, related to perceived blunders or miscues in social business. Sometimes it’s an exotic fish (maybe a tech blog) that swims around an incident, but most of the times it appears to be minnows of chatter that aggregate to pools of outrage by real or potential customers (and other stakeholders), plus the Twitterati and Facebook “Fan Page” aficionados, etc. Does one ill-thought-out or tasteless tweet or a poorly researched/conceived Facebook ad or marketing campaign really qualify as a crisis? Check out this Econsultancy article, 14 epic social media fails, and assess how many stayed in the public consciousness—online and especially offline—for more than a few days. (The Kryptonite Evolution 200 and Dell Hell case studies are practically ancient history!) Compared to the Chilean mining crisis or BP oil eruption, did these online “disasters” even travel out of the social media pool and filter bubble? How many received extensive coverage in traditional, international media? (I can tell you that many of them didn’t migrate north to Canada.) Most importantly, which of the 14 #epicfail scenarios affected stock prices or shareholder value, let alone have an impact on long-time brand reputation or trust? Shark bytes or minnow nibbles? One of the most egregious examples of a true social media “crisis” shark byte was a YouTube video from a Domino’s Pizza outlet going viral, involving two bored, 30-somethings employees working on Easter Sunday in a small mountain town In North Carolina. The phones weren’t ringing with any orders, so they decided to have some “rogue fun” (for which they were later arrested and charged). In the words of Tim McIntyre, vice president, communications, at the Ann Arbor, Michigan head office, “Domino’s did not do this. This was done to us. And we’re fixing the problem.” I’ve referenced the PRSA cover story where this quote comes from (in its flagship publication, The Strategist), numerous times to those who continue, misguidedly, to refer to this as an online “PR disaster.” I recommend you read Domino’s delivers during crisis: The company’s step-by-step response after a vulgar video goes viral thoroughly. Share it and help to undo the conventional wisdom that Domino’s did a poor crisis communications job—much of it propagated by social media “gurus” looking for Google juice (which I characterized at the time as “online pizza ambulance chasers”). Not to forget “crisis” armchair experts who have never been in the eye of the storm or done sufficient research, but still deliver a pat “to-avoid-a-PR-disaster” Must-Do List. The company did not have an #epicfail; it delivered a near note-perfect response in terms or contacting the appropriate authorities and frequent and honest integrated communications with applicable stakeholders. Today the company’s reputation and market share are doing just fine. Another post with a similar viewpoint (from ) worth checking out is Real vs. Fake Social Media Crises, recently published on PRBreakfastClub. On the other hand… …I find all but two examples in this AdAge article, How to Tell if Your Campaign Has Hit a Social-Media Flashpoint, more a case of minnowing (sic) reactions. Often it seems the necessity for social media “sentiment” monitoring is little more than a fear-mongering selling tactic for hybrid and social media agencies or consultants. Besides the viral vulgar video, the new-to-me exception is the Applebee’s incident. The reputation impact of mistakenly serving a child a margarita is reflected by how mainstream media jumped on it, which was augmented online by negative sentiment. Similar to Domino’s Pizza, when it comes to the possibility of the public ingesting tainted food, serving an alcoholic drink to a child raised the red flag of a potential or real crisis for this restaurant chain. Enlisting #solopr peers to debate dealing with an online crisis Following are compiled and abridged (lightly copy edited) extracts from the November 9, 2011, #solopr Twitter chat (see full transcript, Q3). Defining a crisis and how to deal with it Kellye Crane“The decision of when to react (or not) has always been a huge part of PR. Now, you just have to decide faster.” Farida Harianawala “There’s no perfect formula for dealing with a crisis. Quite often you have to take information on hand, use common sense and run with it, including diligent, real-time monitoring on what’s being said and how it’s being amplified. It’s important to discern when to step in and minimize damage.” Jen Zingsheim “A true crisis is something that has the potential to damage the business. Not just a logo redesign.” Kristie Aylett, APR (two-time major crisis veteran) “Social media’s echo effect can amplify a customer gripe into a frenzy. Thedilemma is that you get butchered for a slow response as you wait to get full picture or for reacting too quickly. There’s no sweet spot. My mantra has always been, ‘it’s the cover-up that gets you’.” Fran Stephenson (veteran of numerous corporate crises) “You usually can’t label something a crisis until after it’s over! There’s nothing ‘off the shelf’” about any of the situations…ever. Having a crisis communication plan does help frame situations; I recommend every company have one in place to use as a reference.” Davina BrewerGetting ahead of a story is smarter; better than playing catch up and damage control: Pay attention, monitor trends, have a plan in place to prevent before and protect afterward, whether it’s an employee, vendor or contractor. Yes, respond, but take into account the nature and severity of the ‘crisis.’ Overreacting can make a small problem big in a hurry.” Lori Scribner “You can’t [entirely] ignore the social media chatter. Be responsive: people want to be heard and recognized.” Terri Mallioux “If only more companies and people understood that, for the most part, folks are forgiving if not lied to and there’s no attempt to cover things up. Put victims and families first.” Mustafa Stefan Dill “It’s due diligence to reach out to clients when we know of such incidents—they may not even see it as potential crisis. Monitor, listen, think before you respond (but do respond) and have a plan in place to deal with different levels of crisis. And if you have reactive client, train them to be proactive!” John Trader “I think it starts with transparency. If you are transparent early, it tampers amplification and stymies groundswell. Many crisis situations can be avoided by including your community as part of the strategic development.” Joy Donnell “Most clients are either proactive or reactive. Know which your client is and you’ll know how to prepare them for potential crises. Many don’t realize how much of PR is training clients. Brand consistency and consumer respect are a key part of crisis survival.” #solopr participants discuss the legal side of many crises Joel Don “How many have found corporate executives listen to lawyers first and/or follow the well-devised crisis plan they paid you to write? The problem during a crisis is that sometimes executives drop the plan and go visceral. It’s tough making a good legal vs. customer decision, as sometimes they collide.” Mustafa Stefan Dill “How many PR folk work closely with the client’s legal team in a crisis mode? It seems like developing a good working relationship with the legal team would be good thing for PR pros; so much of what we do is similar.” Kate Robins “There’s getting PR and there is listening to it. Getting through internally is half of the battle. I always work with legal during and before—it’s offense vs. defense, listening to lawyers so a company doesn’t open itself up to more trouble, such as litigation and big losses. Lawyers can help PR see what it can’t.” Diana Conconi “In the long term a lawsuit can be less disastrous than consumer trust lost when a company doesn’t admit fault. It’s why crisis communications doesn’t always go smoothly: the lawyers and PR counsel are usually of two very different minds—it depends on who is running the show.” John Trader “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a hybrid legal/social media employee who can talk the talk?” Prepare and enable a corporation for an online crisis Finally, a pointer to Jeremiah Owyang’s Corporate Communications, Disrupted, Yet More Important Than Ever Before. Although some of Altimeter Group’s assessment of what constitutes a “corporate crisis” is debatable (social media “pile-on effect” or the “ferocity” of schools of minnows alighting for a little nibble on some misguided campaign and then migrating away…?), I think Owyang’s three concluding points most noteworthy (which echo many of the thoughts of my #solopr colleagues). This includes the concept of “enabling” business units to communicate, based on pre-set parameters put in place through governance, coordination and workflow.” And wholehearted support for the idea of education programs at four levels—executive, social media, business stakeholders and all associates—although, as indicated in my inaugural column, my belief is that PR (reputation, value and relationship building) is best situated to lead (not own) social media. Particularly for this Byte, Owyang’s third suggestion to proactively host “mock crises across the enterprise” has full endorsement.  Swim through the crisis net Work to make social media a considered and essential component of an organization’s ongoing integrated communications program, based on frequent and honest communications and engagement with stakeholders. When it comes to crisis communication in social business, it might prove the fastest way to minnow-ize a potential shark byte and “PR disaster.” Let’s focus on the positive instead of the negative for a change. Share your examples of organizations successfully averting an #epicfail, based on their crisis management and/or longer-haul earned reputation. More resources for a global-local context:

Update: Some more recent resources from Jen Zingsheim (quoted above in the #solopr chat and also a commenter on this post):

How To Determine if you have a “crisis” or “kerfuffle”, Jen Zingsheim, MediaBullseye, The CustomScoop Blog Radio Roundtable: Corporations giving up on social? Influence algorithms, and real v. fake social media crises, Radio Roundtable (podcast, start at 20-minute mark), Chip Griffin and Jen Zingsheim

Judy Gombita
This monthly Social Media and Public Relations column is contributed by Judy Gombita. Judy is a Toronto-based public relations and communication management specialist, with more than 20 years of employment and executive-level volunteer board experience, primarily in the financial and lifelong learning nonprofit sectors. She is the co-editor and Canadian contributor (since 2007) to the international, collaborative blog, PR Conversations. +Judy Gombita
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  1. says

    Judy this was a very thorough look at what questions need to be asked before having the same knee jerk reaction the public does.

    Really appreciated how you brought in colleagues into the conversation.

    • says

      Thank you kindly for the comment, @micheleprice:disqus. I’m a huge fan of Twitter chats (did a two-part guest blog post, Teasing out the potential of Twitter chats, for and have found some of them really effective to “crowdsource” research ideas. (In my last column, “Connections Byte” I made use of #socialmedia quotes–chat #sm132, to be specific.) Ergo, I walk the chat. :-)

      I do believe that a bit of a recalibration is taking place regarding “social business,” meaning that there are fewer knee-jerk reactions happening. Or, if they do happen, most people minnow-ize the shark byte. 

  2. Jen Zingsheim says

    Great post Judy–and thanks for including my comment! Chip and I had this same discussion on the Roundtable recently (about “real” vs. social media crises). His opinion–and I agree–is that any crisis that stays (mostly) confined to social media isn’t a crisis at all. Example: the Motrin Moms flap. The only reason it made its way into mainstream media was that a social media “blowup” was still a fairly new thing. There was no brand danger at all. It was an online reaction, to an (old) online ad. Not a crisis, really.

    I’ve had a blog post written on this that I really need to get posted!


    • says

      Thanks for weighing in, Jen (both during the #solopr chat and here on the post). I will make a point of listening to that Roundtable podcast (you should feel free to supply a direct link).

      I did think of the Motrin Moms flap, particularly as it was not included in the two articles cited (at least I don’t think so). Although I didn’t think it was a crisis, either (more an over-reaction), I did think it signified the start of Mommy Bloggers really coming into their own re: power–which they still have a significant chunk of. (Pssttt…in a few weeks CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition is going to feature a special documentary on Mommy Bloggers….)

      I also had several suggestions (when writing this column) to include the current Qantas “negative tweets” contest. But:

      1) I think it is too soon to judge whether that is really a crisis.
      2) Qantas has a lot more, long-term labour and reputation problems on its hands than simply a contest gone terribly tweet wrong. That was a favourite line from a CaseCamp presentation several years ago, about a Canadian telecomms participation in social media (actively monitoring/engaging and doing some customer service). An audience member stood up and declared that having good social media for this company was akin “to placing a bandage on the big, gaping wound that was X’s systemic horrible customer relations.”

      Write that blog post–I’d love to see it. And make sure to point it out to me, either here in the comments or on Twitter, Google+, etc. I will be most interested to hear your further reflections and take.

  3. says

    I can’t come up with a good, positive example right now. And I think that goes to your point of ‘how long do we really remember’ anyway. I’ve done summary posts and many a ‘crisis’ – both online and off – don’t have the staying power; others only garner the attention of we armchair quarterbacks or the media, fanning flames for a story. Yet for all the brand bashing, it’s not like Netflix lost half their customers.

    It’s a fine line that has to be tread; over vs. under-reacting as the world watches. Do too much, you make the molehill a mountain; do too little, letting the coal raking begin. Factor in the real time complications – b/c how dare a company take 23 minutes to assess a situation and get some facts before responding to angry tweets and FB posts?! – it is all the more important for communications to have the education and training to respond. 

    You need to be consistent and on message (as a few of the smart solo PRs mentioned; BTW thanks for including my comment) but also in this day and age, I think being less ‘branded’ and more ‘human’ may be the better option. IMHO it’s that ‘human’ factor, the person who has the training, experience to recognize the real bytes from nibbling minnows that can help stem the tide before a crisis overflows – if I may so abuse your metaphor ;-). FWIW.

    • says


      I was happy to include your input, because it echoed my own pragmatism when it came to online monitoring, engagement and the need for—or not—of direct intervention, as did the majority of participants in that #solopr chat. I was careful to try not to influence the discussion too much in terms of my existing POV, because that’s part of the package of doing objective research: remaining open to alternative opinions.

      I wouldn’t classify you as an “armchair expert,” although I was interested in polling how many of the participants did have first-hand experience with a true crisis. Out of the two-digit number of participants in that chat, it really didn’t surprise me that only two people self-identified as having been in the eye of the storm. I once guesstimated that five per cent or fewer of PR practitioners have direct experience—and that’s a good thing! But
      compare that to the percentage of people who weigh in with “advice” for any given “PR disaster!” Maybe that’s why it’s hard to come up with good examples, above and beyond Domino’s Pizza—and I would include Maple Leaf Foods and the listeriosis outbreak, although the online aspect really was limited to the PSA announcements by the CEO being placed first on YouTube, plus the company instituting an information blog, mainly after the fact—there simply aren’t that many true crises from a one-company perspective. These days most of the PR disasters appear to stem from the personal life, etc., of the CEO or CFO impacting the organization’s reputation. So they are fired.

      The (USA-only) Netflix example is an interesting one, because the decision was actually based on sound business reasoning—escalating postal costs. Where the company really blundered was in communicating the reasons “why” with loyal clients. But, as you said, in the long-term it seems the customer base didn’t suffer that much, as the company is left with old or new clients that can appreciate the reasonably priced and accessible streaming option or else the reality of the need to pay more for the hard copies being delivered.

      Besides your “23 minutes” reality check contribution, I really like the skill set analogy of recognizing “the real bytes from nibbling minnows that can help stem the tide before a crisis overflows.” I’m glad the swimming and byting and nibbling fish analogies worked for you and you are helping to grow the imagery databank. It’s interesting how onside Heather Yaxley and you are about the training and experience aspect. It certainly speaks to the argument and value of having a (senior) PR practitioner leading both crisis communications efforts and the integrated communications aspect of social media…

      • says

        I’ve gone back to Netflix in a future post b/c you’re exactly right – what they’ve done was a reasonable business decision to defray costs, make more money; it was the communication that was mismanaged – though it’s cost them customers, they’ll still make more in the long run (except they changed again).

        Glad you mentioned the CEOs; when I studied crisis PR back in the day, one of the first things we looked at was perspective and the “Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral?” 20 questions. Is this something ‘isolated’ by an individual’s personal folly, professional misconduct? Is this a natural disaster that couldn’t be avoided, or an internal disaster that a companies errors/neglect allowed to happen? So many variables to be considered – by professionals who have a sense of the situations themselves and how they’ll be perceived by various publics, including lightning fast social media. FWIW.

        • says

          Very true. Of course the other side would be how much buy-in do you have from the CEO (and/or rest of the C-suite) about using social media as a part of the company’s integrated communications for PR purposes (reputation, value and relationship building), above and beyond marketing campaigns and/or customer service?

          Again, as this column focuses on PR and social media (and this is specifically about online or not corporate “crises”), I wonder if the day will come when a CEO issues his or her apologia or rationale for decisions that have impacted organizational reputation through PERSONAL miscues via via Twitter or on YouTube.

          Somehow I’m thinking not.

          (One final comment from me on Netflix: it certainly gave the “armchair experts” plenty of blogging fodder, didn’t it? How many blog posts did you see about “communication tips” for Netflix?)

  4. Heather Yaxley says

    Judy – as ever, great post.  Couple of thoughts from me.  First, I agree that the speed of social media is also one of its limitations re a crisis, since they are almost like pimples on a teenager’s face (here today, gone tomorrow – sometimes with a little help from professional or amateur help!). 

    My second thought is with regard to the PR obsession with crisis.  It seems that many so-called crisis last longer in the presentations of PR folk than in the public mindset.  Even Tylenol (the PR’s classic example) has to be introduced to most people before it is then held up as the shining example (without anyone considering whether the myth is real or valid nearly 30 years on). 

    This obsession with crisis also does something else.  I feel that it presents PR people as heroes or villains and so obscures the fact that many crisis situations are not the fault of PR in either the origination or handling (you cannot guarantee to catch the fish, only guide them).  It also puts the focus on BIG situations (something strategically vital as the Tweeters above indicated).  In reality, most of PR people are never (fortunately) involved in such dramatic incidents, and if they were, they would not be handling them on their own.  What we do deal with on a regular basis are minor incidents – some with the potential to grow, some which could have a significant impact on a few people, some of which are just zits to be dealt with.  That’s where we need to focus in PR thinking in my view – on ensuring practitioners are equipped and recognised for their routine risk assessment, problem solving or incident management skills. 

    Afterall, few of use face Jaws or need to Find Nemo in our careers – mostly we are pro/reactively responding to the sprats and minnows of everyday PR life.

    • says

      thank you for the props. As you are someone I rely and can count upon for
      real-life experience, research and an informed opinion, it means a great deal
      to me. You know that I’ve pointed to your Classic Yaxley post on Toyota many
      times, which is why I wanted to offer it up as an additional resource and not
      just for its social media component. In it you explored (amongst other things)
      the concept of crises not actually being the fault of PR people for the most
      part. (I think Domino’s Pizza’s Tim McIntyre also emphasized that fact.) And I
      agree with your concern about the PR “heroes and villains”
      obsessions, which I think is being propagated in this current, all-encompassing
      quest to define public relations—mainly with PR being cast in the hero role,
      naturally! You are correct that the majority of time people in our occupation
      are doing things that are much less dramatic, I would say working to build
      organizational reputation, trust and relationships, sometimes more successfully
      than others.


      you recall how Toni Muzi Falconi (who knows everyone worth knowing in the
      international PR realm) responded to the question in his PRC PRoust
      Questionnaire, Who
      do you think has great public relations? He
      answered, “In most cases successful organizations do not have overt public
      visibility. Or, when they do have a high profile, they don’t betray their
      anxiousness or obsessive need to be liked.”


      it comes to an online crisis, we could flip that equation to say trying not to
      be noticed or disliked, or at least not for too long….


      brill (said with a posh British accent) is your, “focus…on ensuring
      practitioners are equipped and recognized for their routine risk assessment
      [shades of Josh Greenberg’s recent PRC post], problem solving or INCIDENT
      management skills.”


      you introduced that I quite liked: an online crisis being like a pimple (even
      if not the least bit fish-like), guiding a crisis like a fish (thoughts of an
      Amazing Race segment in an Asian country whereby the participants had to guide
      fish to a destination with long poles!), Jaws and Find Nemo. And now I’m off to
      Google what exactly a “sprat” is, to add to my global-local lexicon
      of fishy imagery.

  5. says

    As we know, hindsight is 20/20.  So I am looking forward to the day (probably a few years from now) when we can revisit great or questionable  moments in social media with episodes such as the GAP logo debacle/crisis.   Was that the true collective voice of consumers, or cyber-bullying by a small group of bloggers with too much power on their hands?  Have we now simply handed over the keys from one set of gatekeepers to another?  History be the judge.  Thanks for the post, Judy.

    • says

      Re: Hindsight is 20/20. My thoughts on social media crises (real or perceived) are more like questions… 
      One of the most current ones being, why would there be a “crisis” in the first place if it could be mitigated or anticipated prior to it happening. Are there any internal checks and balances; process, policies & procedures in place where said org is constantly “tweaking” its systems, strategies and directions so as to not have a crisis happen. More importantly is the customer experience responsive? Especially for orgs who have physical products or render in person services? There needs to be some pressure-testing, as Jeremiah Owyong put it, mock crisis exercises to keep the social media / customer service agents on their toes?

      • says

        In the words (above) of Fran Stephenson (veteran of numerous corporate crises),
        “You usually can’t label something a crisis until after it’s over!
        There’s nothing ‘off the shelf’” about any of the situations…ever.
        Having a crisis communication plan does help frame situations; I
        recommend every company have one in place to use as a reference.”

        Maybe what you mean, Andrew, is why don’t marketers/advertisers figure out in advance that they “may” offend some cookin’ daddy bloggers in their ill-conceived Facebook campaign re: a (not-that-great) pasta sauce?

        Trying to be edgy? Not enough research? Who knows. Regardless, I don’t think these are crises. Marketing blunders or miscues. And it’s not like these things are platform agnostic. Someone can write a stupid tweet…or they can say the same thing in a public place. Both reflect poorly on both the individual and his/her organization…but it’s not a real crisis.

        More thinking is needed. More experience. More listening and less “talking.” (Two ears and one mouth….)

        Thanks for stopping by and for helping to promote this PR column and post. “See” you in Twitter chats….

        • says

          Judy I was thinking more from the point of a gripe, irritant or frustration. Not that it would become a true crisis. 

          As you’ve pointed out, the issues originate offline, then the disgruntled take to the “air waves” to vent their frustration to their community and simultaneously to the brand/service/product in question.

          Which is why I wonder about the feasibility of the idea of pressure testing (or if it clarifies it better) secret shopping a B2C org’s processes from a customer’s perspective.Which is the main reason why I wrote about social fire in the first place. It was all about the betterment of process for the customer/client.

          • says

            Andrew., I’m less convinced than many (perhaps including you) that customers “own the brand.” Certainly that could be an innovative way to involve customer input at the front end, but it does leave open the possibility of competitive intelligence getting outside.

            And the other thing I would like to point out is that very few organizations have “customer service” report to public relations. Generally it’s the COO or sometimes even HR. Why? Because internal processes and procedures are in those departments’ bailiwick.

            I don’t think you would find many organizational PR practitioners trying to “lead” (let alone “own”) customer service, although being available for counsel and/or providing input on analysis on external monitoring of perceptions certainly lend themselves to mutual, win-win internal partnering. Marketing, on the other hand, would probably salivate at the chance…. 😉

          • says


            Here’s what I’m questioning. If Brand A’s service is sub-par and Brand Z’s service is +100, Brand Z can make a move on Brand A’s customers.My hypothesis on this works backward. Provide the best customer service in the world and customers will buy, not just once but repeatedly, plus you don’t have to be the lowest priced in the market as well. Zappos did it. They designed their entire process around the best customer experience possible.Seems like my thread has gone off topic… but in an attempt to link it back, Blunders & kerfuffles shouldn’t happen if org can effectively engage audience in responsive and timely dialogue from start to end. (not some cliché’d survey post-sale)

            The interesting thing about startups is that the founding folks have to wear many hats, PR, Marketing, Customer Service, etc. But as org’s grow, the depts get filled by those who are specialists within their field. Even so, I think that large orgs should encourage “cross-pollination” where possible. 

            Imagine if every office space had reps from every dept. Might make for better and more coherent collaboration.

    • says

      Thanks for weighing in, Joel (as well as for your always-wonderful unpaid publicist role for my posts–you really are amazing about that).

      I mentioned to Michele Price (first commenter) about how social media seemed to be recalibrating recently. I think one of the things that is being re-examined (“revisionist social media thinking?!”) is this somewhat silly concept that “companies don’t own their brands anymore…consumers do!”

      Honestly…who really believes that a sensible company is only going to look to the opinions (especially the minnowing ones) regarding the direction it should head in, now and in future? I’m not talking customer/stakeholder feedback (which is of course immensely valuable, especially the constructive criticism), but rather the long-term, visionary aspects of a company, as well as its business and social goals. (And by social, I mean as a part of a society, not simply digital media.)

      I’ve been part of an intensive branding exercise in the past (a fascinating and very useful experience). I know that a company no longer “entirely” owns its brand (if it ever did), but nor do consumers. It’s a multiple-stakeholder series of relationships and outcomes and the reputation and trust of a brand is constantly shifting. Or swimming….

  6. says

    Hi Judy. Thought you may be interested in @TerryFlynn ‘s definition of crisis: “any event, large or small, that can suddenly disrupt an organization’s ability to efficiently and effectively achieve its mission”. In which case the event is relative to the organization. What’s a big fish to one may be minnows to another. Heather makes an interesting point below re: our obsession with crisis when often we’re managing issues. Defining that point where issue becomes crisis is, IMO, important to understanding/appreciating one of PR’s most valuable offerings.

    Thanks again for the post. You got my wheels turnin’.

    • says

      Hi back, Rebecca (and welcome to your first comment on the Windmill Networking Blog). I have to say that your sunfish-sized comment possibly netted and taxed my brain more than any other so far.

      I’ve actually quoted Terry Flynn a couple of times already (see the inaugural column), so obviously I generally place great deal of weight on his opinion. That having been said, I find myself unable to accept that a “small event” would very often have a long-term disruptive impact on an organization. Wouldn’t they more often be “incidents,” sometimes happening internally, but more often externally? An online-ish one that comes to mind is loss of Internet access. Maybe the IT department is making a change or the system has become compromised. Maybe it’s an area- or city-wide blackout. Sure, there’s a short-term loss of productivity and one form of contact…but for the long-term, is it that significant? Particularly if stakeholders know the reason why or find out soon afterwards? And employees work harder the next day to catch-up on things?

      Perhaps you could supply an example or two.

      One that came to mind was the multiple-country outage that Research In Motion experienced recently. For the individual BlackBerry users there was several hours or a few days of impact. Some grumbling. Some threats to switch to an iPhone…but the loyal users (there are more than people realize) recognized this had never happened, to this extent, before. Talking to several people at a Rotman event on Innovation in Canada the second day, these business people were pretty sanguine about the minnow impact. Some actually voiced a bit of guilty relief at not having to be “on and available” during the all-morning workshop.

      Sure, for RIM it was yet-another shark byte to its reputation (although current management is doing its own part to cannibalize the company…). But the silver lining is that it gave RIM the opportunity to demonstrate some rare and creative initiative going forward, such as instituting a SWAT IT team to deal faster with a similar crisis, if need be, in future.

      I concur that Heather Yaxley has contributed a defining piece of advice re: the need for training and counsel in issues management. As this column deliberately focuses on PR *and* social media, perhaps this is another way our PR kin can differentiate themselves from the marketers and advertisers and customer services and community manager peeps—skill in discerning when an online issue might be evolving into a potential crisis.

      Happy to get your wheels turnin’. Thanks, in kind, for doing the same for me.

  7. says

    Judy – the construct of “crisis” imparts urgency, and certainly marketing blunders or miscues have the potential to damage brand. Therefore, from the marketing perspective, they represent crises, which may account for why social media lands so hard on the C-Word. A flurry of flitting flies annoy only; they may or may not bite, draw blood and damage the corpus business… I agree with @greenbanana:twitter that the hero/villain complex is part of the issue too. The other is blame — heads on pikes, as my pal Mindy says. Someone must be blamed. Therefore, every blunder is potentially lethal. Fire the agency and the head of marketing. Put the CEO in jail.  This is damaging to the cause of innovation – risk breeds innovation and failure, more the latter than the former. Innovative organizations encourage proper risk and don’t punish failure unless it becomes a habit. So, organizations searching for certainty often do not innovate. 

    I like @twitter-25434275:disqus / @terryflynn:disqus ‘s crisis definition. It’s one stop short of existential (truly crises in anyone’s estimation). To a point you made on Twitter, issues management is probably a better appellation to ascribe to non-crises. It just might not bill at the same high rate as crisis communications…  

    • says

      Thanks for stopping by Sean Williams. Do you really think “public relations” is a function that focuses very often on “innovation,” other than assisting in marketing PR efforts (i.e., profile and publicity)? Maybe what is chosen for true corporate social responsibility (above and beyond one-off or short-term “cause marketing” efforts). Or a unique event staged that brings a variety of stakeholders together, to communicate something of great magnitude for all concerned. But these would be extraordinary events, not the work-a-day life of the average PR practitioner (particularly the in-house, organizational ones).

      I think I need to emphasize, again, that this column focuses on PR and social media, and that this instalment is about whether or not there have been any *true* online-generated crises. Innovation (or edginess) in marketing campaigns on Facebook, etc., gone amiss would really be a miscue or blunder. Even the one-off tweets that truly don’t recognize that the Arab Awakening (etc.) is really not the time to try and sell your clothing line. It was ONE TWEET, not a crisis. (And I laughed when the armchair experts proclaimed that Kenneth Cole himself was tweeting. Get real. My bet it was a Gen Y agency person….)

      Maybe commenters (existing or potential) on this column should crowdsource a cool-sounding name and hashtag for social media miscues, thereby recognizing it as a #fail, just not an #epicfail. What say you to #marketingbooboo ? (Addendum: maybe #marketingoofs )

  8. says

    Judy, really enjoyed the many voices on the question of what’s a
    “real” crisis and what’s not. You’re absolutely right that social
    media mistakes often don’t start as a PR crisis. With a lack of attention and slow
    or no response to issues or criticism, they can grow from social media misssteps
    into a full-blown business crisis.


     We need look no further than
    Netflix and for recent examples of how social media situations helped
    fuel a crisis causing loss of customers, negative impact on corporate reputation,
    decrease in share value and other financial impact as well. That is a
    “crisis” by any definition.


    In my mind, there is a continuum that often starts with “noise”
    from one or several minnows building into a social media school of pyrhannas.  This sometimes grows into a feeding frenzy,
    leading to real impact on an organization, then evolving into a “negative”
    situation and finally blowing up into a full blown “PR” crisis.


    The most important things PR can bring to crisis management are
    judgment and the ability to recommend and take action to minimize impact on
    business operations or the reputation of the organization.


    Thanks again for an interesting post and lively discussion.

    • says

      Hi Jeff, thanks for reading and commenting.

      I’ve applauded you, numerous times, on how you are one of the best at monitoring the social media realm and sharing pertinent links of what’s significant in grabbing attention, from a curation perspective.

      My concern about characterizing things as a “full-blown business crisis” (especially related to the online aspects) is that too often the descriptor is applied in a present and immediate-future context. What I don’t believe we see enough of is revisiting the organizations’ reputation and financial aspects, even one fiscal quarter later—”revisionist” analysis and assessment, let’s call it. Netflix (which really wasn’t an online crisis, except that it was on online platforms that the most outrage was expressed) is a good example. A few months later, how much of its overall customer base numbers or stock price were really impacted? I’m sure Netflix lost some old-format customers…but did it also not gain new ones? Note that I haven’t examined the issue closely, but I also have not seen any media reports of longer-term changes in market share or a filing for bankruptcy, etc.

      In many ways the film industry (of which Netflix is one distribution arm) is in flux. Ergo, perhaps customer usage really needs to be looked at in conjunction with attendance at movie houses—which I understand is down fairly significantly for 2011 in North America.

      There was an interesting article in the Toronto Star recently about the impact of Canada moving to digital-only TV this fall (a year after the USA). A significant number of Canadians were cancelling their cable subscriptions, instead installing TV antennas, streaming shows on their computers…and taking out a Netflix subscription for films! Of course the mail option for Netflix was never offered in Canada, so the business model changes didn’t impact Canadians. On the other hand, perhaps Netflix gained as many Canadian streaming customers as it lost USA mail-in ones…?

      I heart the way you, too, are adding to the fishy imagery. Interestingly, Brian Pittman of had also suggested, offline, social media school piranha imagery, but in his case I think it was prompted by a fictional film that his wife and he co-wrote. Which is scarier in the online sphere—a shark or a piranha?

      Regarding your, “The most important things PR can bring to crisis management are judgment and the ability to recommend and take action to minimize impact on business operations or the reputation of the organization.” I agree in terms of being reactive in the present. But avoiding, or at least minimizing, issues and potential reputation-impact miscues and blunders altogether is even more important, from a proactive perspective. And that’s where providing PR counsel, at the front end to leadership, can play an important role, regarding social media and other areas in an integrated communication program.

  9. says

    I think there is no particular way to deal with the crisis. You have to take a decision and have to wait for the result. You have to accept the end result whether good or bad.

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