Extraction Byte: Mining Social PR Elements from the Masters of Disaster Commandments

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“…when responding to a crisis, the mission is to restore trust.

Extraction-Byte-Mining-Social-PR-Elements-from-the-Masters-of-Disaster-Commandments-V3 copy

The response to the crisis is what is known as crisis management.

The tale of what you do to manage the crisis—and, in particular, how fairly you are treated going forward by those audiences who will be judging you—is called damage control.Masters of Disaster: The Ten Commandments of Damage Control, p. 22

Extraction Byte backgrounder

Evolving into a social business is a learning experience for all. Don’t be taken in; no one has all of the answers. Rather than be definitive, what I prefer to do in this monthly social PR column is to share some of my recent resources and examinations and how they have advanced my thinking of putting concepts into practice.

More than a year ago I detailed what constituted an organizational social PR crisis or disaster in Crisis Byte: An Online Shark Attack or Fishy Little Nibbles? More recently, I supplemented this thesis with quotes from Augie Ray in Binary Byte from his own post, Social Media Crises Aren’t Crises.

Since time a few more things have occurred.

First, I was one of the PR practitioners/academics interviewed in December 2012 by Carleton University graduate student, Tegan Ford, for her master’s thesis on social media elements in a crisis, in particular as they relate to her core case study, the BP oil spill of 2011. Her thesis is titled: #Crisis: New Media and its Impact on Crisis Communication.

Second, I was offered a review copy of the Christopher Lehane, Mark Fabiani and Bill Guttentag book, Masters of Disaster. (I’ve recommended Tegan Ford obtain her own copy and I referenced the book in my January 2013 submission to PRSA’s #PRin2013 trends series, so you can deduce it has my endorsement as a worthy read.)

Lastly, the world’s largest independent PR agency released its (13th annual) Edelman Trust Barometer 2013 in January.

I heart when circumstances and things coalesce….

The authors of Masters of Disaster reference the Edelman Trust Barometer twice:

“In fact, the Edelman Trust Barometer recently [in its 2012 edition] found trust in information conveyed through self-selected social media sites—social networking sites, content-sharing platforms, blogs and micro-blogs—actually surged 75 percent….” p. 14

“The Edelman Trust Barometer referred to earlier, specifically found that while trust has declined in many sectors, including government and business, the public’s trust in the media is on the rise. This was especially true for online media, which recently had a single-year trust increase of a whopping 74 percent. Thus, in picking a fight with media, whether they be new or old, you are pitting your trustworthiness directly against an institution that the public perceives as trustworthy, exactly at your greatest moment of weakness….” p. 162

This is not an “overall” book review…

Instead of commenting on the book as a whole, what I’m doing is extracting some of the social PR elements that added to my own appreciation of integrated communication for damage control.

In one of their case studies, the authors refer to New Vision Television’s “well-organized, vertically and horizontally integrated crisis communications R-Day [Restructuring] plan.”

That’s the thing, crisis communications cannot be done through social media alone, although in this particular case it played a large part:

  • The CEO publicly issued a prepared statement that went on Business Wire.
  • A custom-designed website went live that provided information about the bankruptcy process and had a section with frequently asked questions related explicitly to question the company anticipated from its investors, employees and advertising customers.
  • The company opened a dedicated phone line to answer questions.
  • New Vision launched a social media program featuring the company’s senior leadership answering media questions and other inquiries.

The communications team monitored the online reactions to the news and responded appropriately and quickly to reports that were inaccurate or incomplete.

In particular, great use was made of Twitter to update core stakeholders on the progression of the restructuring plan, including links to more information.

Information creation

The authors indicate basic human errors or instincts have not changed, but suggest that what has evolved is the completely different way information is created, conveyed and consumed.

They identify five elements:

  • the vast proliferation of outlets communicating information
  • the light speed at which information moves
  • the erosion of trust in the quality of the information received
  • the capacity of individuals to selectively identify and leverage information
  • the evolving communal nature of information

Social media as small wheels of a clock

I really liked the analogy offered when combining traditional and social media information:

“We no longer have conventional news cycles, but cycles within cycles within cycles, where platforms like Twitter, YouTube, blogs, and Facebook are akin to the small wheels of a clock that turn the bigger wheels.”

My take (including examples I provide, i.e, not from the book) is that the small wheels of various forms of media can work both for and against your social PR damage control.

The against is fairly obvious:

  • In addition to traditional media, the more-recent proliferation of owned and third-party platforms, citizen journalists, competitors or other vested interests, and general “laser-like” attention (sometimes opinionating) regarding an organization’s damage-control efforts. (I continue to be frustrated at how Susan G. Komen allowed its core mission to be hijacked: the private foundation was established to raise monies/allocate funds to find a cure for breast cancer through research, not to fund general healthcare.)
  • Questions and accusations come at you continually from many places and people at a juncture when you need time for “research, savvy, and discipline.”
  • The combination of written, audio and visual elements that may be systematically employed against you to damage organizational reputation and trust.
  • The SEO component and global reach of news and opinions related to a crisis mean it’s impossible to contain knowledge of a crisis to your industry or locality.

“When you are in the throes of a crisis it is critical to remember: It is not about winning the battle of the news cycle, it is about winning the war of the news story—and the war of the news story is won by rebuilding trust.”

The for takes more discipline:

  • An organization’s various platforms and social-media/communication-responsible employees can be trusted and enlisted to consistently—i.e., “everyone is singing off the same sheet of music”—indicate accurate counter-spin coming from the top as it becomes available or a course of action is determined. Consistent, frequent and honest—even when unflattering—communication is key.
  • Even if regular and truthful communication is vital to damage control, this doesn’t mean things should be answered in a panic or hurry, especially on “shareable” platforms. “… everyone is educated on the need for speed, but some confuse speed with efficacy.” An organization can engage in message discipline, both in terms of who gets the first responses and how and where, based on their preference (in the case of media, it likely is by telephone). Of course it remains in your best interest to post information for general consumption in a timely manner on various social platforms, but don’t feel compelled to answer all “wants” immediately. Set communication priorities.
  • Figuring out both who are your core stakeholders or audiences and what are their various preferences for information-reception, allows you to focus efforts on appropriate platforms and individuals. This means the haters on Facebook or the persistent tweeters who do not have a direct relationship with the organization or its crisis do not have to be paid particular special attention. (I found it very edifying, per Audacious Byte, to discover that McDonald’s Canada never responds to negative comments on its Facebook account.) The general updates probably won’t win haters over, but by the same token earlier, unfounded claims and speculation lose their potency.
  • Because there is so much information out there, on so many channels, if you win the war of the news story, media outlets and people will move on to the next crisis. (A recent example would be the ill-advised KitchenAid tweet during the American presidential debate (between incumbent President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney) that focused on Barack Obama’s deceased grandmother. The company communication representative dealt with the minor crisis honestly and decisively—apologizing, outlining what had happened, as well as changes to employee tweeting procedures going forward. As a result, she won the news story and the resulting lack of continuous news cycle….)

Per the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer, skepticism and dispersion requires repetition. The majority of people need to hear company information three to five times to believe messages and/or better trust the organization. Using message discipline on various social PR channels increases your chance of the repetition being seen or heard, as well as shared and believed (or trusted).

When monitoring and identifying compromising audio or video segments, the authors of Masters of Disaster indicate that edited versions deliberately framing  opinions and things out of context must be exposed immediately and vigorously, including what is the true date-stamp and circumstances surrounding the information (i.e., if it was something filmed 20 years ago, when the person was in a different position and organization).

Regarding the increasingly demanded video apology, I found this information in Masters of Disaster quite useful and interesting:

“In admitting a mistake, the sooner you express regret, say you are sorry, or give an apology, the more effective the admission. To underscore this point, consider an October 2011 Wall Street Journal online analysis of the recent trend of high-profile CEOs battling crises who take to YouTube to explain their situations. The Journal specifically focused on the evolving art form of the YouTube apology, including examining the time in each video it took the CEOs to actually utter the word “sorry.” The Journal’s review leads to the conclusion that the sooner in the video a CEO apologizes, the more effective the YouTube apology.” p. 99

Plan against the need for damage control

One final ah-ha I’ll share from Masters of Disaster. The authors mention a few times how online tools provide ways for organization to put information out on their own or (third-party) social media platforms—a form of aggressive, yet positive brand journalism—which  means that if or when asked, the organization can point to the fact that it was proactively and affirmatively disclosed.

“We had one nonprofit client that, due to its own diligence, became aware of an issue regarding the efficacy of one of its programs, and they self-reported that issue in a document that was put right on the organization’s website. Predictably, several months later a reporter called because they had been “tipped” to an incipient scandal. We pointed them to the website, noting that the organization itself had made the issue public on its own, and that it was posted and available for all to read. We never heard back from the reporter and the story never ran.”

I was thinking how this could be taken one step further with social media accounts, if a regular roundup of new items on a website or blog is issued. The self-reporting, less efficacy-favourable items can be included along with other items of more general interest, also lessening any later “cover-up” allegations—proactive potential damage control.

Moving forward

As both social business and personal inclination moves more and more information and engagement on to online platforms and forums, I’m predicting social PR damage control is going to increase in terms of strategy and resources. I don’t, however, think the core elements of what is being attempted in crisis communication—restoring organizational trust, taking responsibility for what happened and changes in future, frequent and honest communication, and message discipline (both in what is being communicated and who does it) will change that much.

Strategy is why and what; tactics include who, when, where and how. Likely it’s in the social PR tactics that we will see the most evolution in future and perhaps an increased focus in any second edition of Masters of Disaster.

If your organization has had the misfortune to suffer more than one crisis in the past decade, have you made increasing use of social PR for damage control in the later instance(s)? If yes, please share how in the comments section.

If you are intrigued as to whether Masters of Disaster would be a worthwhile investment, here is a précis of the book’s contents, per the The User’s Manual found at the end.

The Survival Principles

Do No Harm—It’s Not the Crime, It’s the Cover-Up

  • Don’t Chase the Story, Get Ahead of the Story
  • Avoid Over-Spin, Focus on Counter-Spin
  • Don’t Lay the Blame on Others, Accept Responsibility

Discipline—It’s Not Personal, It’s Strictly Business

  • Commit to Preparation
  • Exercise Mental Toughness in the Fog of a Crisis
  • Think Long Term

Credibility—I Want the Truth!

  • Accurate Information Is the Coin of the Realm
  • Manage Expectations
  • Control the Flow of Information

The Ten Commandments of Damage Control

I.     Full Disclosure
II.   Speak to Your Core Audience
III.  Don’t Feed the Fire
IV.   Details Matter
V.     Hold Your Head High
VI.   Be Straight About What You Know, What You Don’t Know, and
         What You Are Going To Do To Fix the Problem
VII.  Respond With Overwhelming Force
VIII. First In, First Out
IX.    No Swiftboarding
X.     They Dissemble, You Destroy

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
Judy Gombita


Sr/hybrid (social) public relations & communication management strategist. Mindful curation @PRConversations. Heart: travel, film, theatre, opera, books & food.
By @BlakeMichelleM for @forbes: When Brands Try Too Hard On Social Media http://t.co/h5doJIXEHT h/t @augieray http://t.co/0pHu0sDpvV - 8 hours ago
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  1. says

    Judy, thank you for a truly epic post on crisis communications and #socialpr. So many great takeaways here that I don’t know where to begin, but excellent job on weaving together all of the elements from reports, case studies, and books to give new meaning to, among other things, the need for authenticity in communication, repeated communications, the now-famous “YouTube apology,” and a reminder from your “Crisis Bytes” post about the fact that not every social media crisis is truly a “crisis.” Kudos.

    • says

      Thanks for the feedback, Neal. Some of the social PR elements/concepts were new to me (over on the G+ discussion, I have to counter Sandy Hubbard’s assertion that proactively posting something is disingenuous….).

      But I think what was probably most useful to ME from a damage control, PR practitioner’s perspective is that organizations DON’T have to pay equal attention (on social media or otherwise) to all accusations and complaints. Figuring out the core audiences or stakeholders is absolutely key, as demonstrated in the New Vision Television restructuring case study. I keep going back to Susan G. Komen and how much time the private foundation wasted trying to placate the haters on Facebook. If they wanted to make the funding into a political or healthcare issue, so be it. What Susan G. Komen needed to do was “speak” to the stakeholders who supported its mission of raising funds/allocating monies to FIND A CURE for breast cancer THROUGH RESEARCH.

      Anyhow, I’m glad you found it a worthwhile read, as your opinion on all things social business does matter to me!

      • says

        Whether it’s #socialPR or any other social business function, it takes a truly holistic approach focusing on all online AND offline elements and always focusing on your most important stakeholders to steer through crises. I’m sure your post will provide sound guidance for many!

  2. says

    I agree with Neal Judy really tough to know where to begin with all the great insights. Some that immediately spring to mind – once again Culture eats strategy for lunch and dinner ;-). Leadership and integrity form a great foundation upon which a solid integrated communications strategy can unfold. I love the info about getting ahead of the story while doing so with a disciplined approach. I’ll have to go and get the book you convinced me even the content at the end would be very worthwhile. Quite a post my friend.

    • says

      Thanks, David Graham. I wish I could take credit for the “small wheels of a clock” analogy, but that credit goes to the “Masters of Disaster” who have been through numerous iterations of “winning the war on the news story”–successfully!

  3. says

    Thanks, as always, for the fabulous support, Joe. Indeed:

    “When you are in the throes of a crisis it is critical to remember: It is not about winning the battle of the news cycle, it is about winning the war of the news story—and the war of the news story is won by rebuilding trust.”

    That is absolutely key, winning the war of the news story. And, of course, a company with a great corporate culture, which has always demonstrated integrity and strong values is going to find it easier to win BACK the trust.

    I think the hardest concept for many would be the frequent and honest communication (through social PR), even when it’s unflattering. But that’s part of getting a head of the news story: putting it out there, first!

  4. says

    Judy – really appreciate the bon mots. The recipe for effective crisis communication has been well-studied, notably by Dr W Timothy Coombs of the University of Central Florida. It falls mainly on the concept of not only saying you are sorry, but taking action that demonstrates your sorrow. Paying reparations, firing negligent parties, withholding bonuses or benefits, etc. Getting your organization back to business too quickly winds up backfiring – people have to believe you are sorry, which is a far cry from merely hearing you say it.

    Thanks for another great byte.

    • says

      Thanks, Sean. Of course in this #socialPR column I am focusing on elements of crisis communication related to social media accounts and platforms. Which may not always be employed.

      For example, the recent Applebee’s Restaurant incident. Given that this was an HR decision (to fire the person who posted a patron’s name and message on social media), I have no idea why employees decided to “engage” with the negative visitors on its Facebook account.

      Hiring and firing are organizational decisions. A person opining on Facebook really doesn’t get a say.

      But, then again, I would not classify this Applebee’s incident as a “crisis,” as per the Master’s of Disaster book and Commandments, I really don’t think “trust” and/or the “reputation” of the restaurant was in danger, at the time or in future.

      If the employee hadn’t of been fired, some patrons might have stayed away, fearing their privacy might similarly be compromised……

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