Updated: February 14, 2011 13:40 IST

Velocity, the new dimension in PR crisis

D. Murali
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A common definition of ‘crisis’ in public relations is as a gap between expectations and experience; and the bigger the gap, the bigger the issue, notes Rob Brown in ‘Public Relations and the Social Web: How to use social media and web 2.0 in communications’ ( He adds that the social web has introduced a new dimension to crisis and issues management, viz. velocity.

Tale of woe

There was a time when a customer complaint, even a severe one, would circulate through the customer service department for weeks or even months before the customer became so frustrated that he or she would take the complaint to a journalist, the author recounts.

Even then there was no guarantee that the tale of woe would ever get printed or broadcast; but, now, that barrier to publication has been torn down, distinguishes Brown. He describes how, typically, within minutes of putting the phone down to a difficult or unhelpful customer services representative, whilst still consumed by the burning white heat of anger and frustration, the consumer can be publishing the story!

“They can add photographic or video evidence and they can invite the comments or even detailed case histories from like-minded individuals who have had similar experiences with the same organisation.”

Sheer speed

There are many things that organisations can do to minimise the incidence and severity of this type of attack on their corporate reputation, but the only truly effective response is to provide good products or services and well-managed customer service, the author advises. He reminds that this is the same as it has always been and companies which did not serve their customers well have always been found out eventually. “The difference now is the sheer speed at which this can happen.”

An instructive section in the book is on the need to treat our social networks and the conversations that we have in them as if they were conversations on a crowded train, very likely to be overhead, rather than hushed intimacies discussed in private. While there are many places on the web where access to these conversations is restricted, all electronic communication can be forwarded and much of it is recorded in some form or other, warns Brown. “It is far from uncommon for people to complain wistfully about their jobs from their Facebook Status, forgetting that colleagues, business associates or even their bosses are amongst their Facebook friends.”

Economies with truth

Another trap to be mindful of is parody, what with the broad availability of sophisticated cameras, video editing tools and powerful design applications. “The ‘Slob Evolution’ parody of the ‘Dove Evolution’ video is so well done and so humorous that you might regard it as a homage than a parody,” reads a popular example cited in the book.

There is little we can do to avoid parody but there are some commonsense strategies, the author suggests. He alerts that if your messages, or the way in which they are delivered, come across as pompous or arrogant then they are much more likely to be parodied.

Similarly dangerous are ‘economies with the truth,’ such as ‘greenwashing,’ whereby a corporate’s purported environment-friendly agenda may in fact be a spin of the company policy.

Brown emphasises that all of these economies and distortions have one thing in common – they get found out because there are many clever people out there with a lot of very powerful tools at their disposal. “When you place something on the Internet you leave fingerprints and there are universally available tools, from Whois to Google Analytics, that can follow those digital trails. If you pretend to be someone you are not you will be unmasked and if you say something untrue it will be discovered.”

The new ‘how’

The book delivers, therefore, a sobering message to PR (public relations) people that the old ways will not work. “The days have gone where we issue a story that the client insists upon, knowing that a trade title or two will print it in return for a ‘colour separation’ fee and knowing that no one will read it, but at least there will be something for the cuttings book,” the author observes.

The new ‘how’ of conversations with the audience is all about saying something interesting and starting a debate, he guides. “It is a subtle but fundamental difference to the old approach. If you are just making pronouncements, you are saying something that you find interesting or important. You imagine and hope there will be a willing audience out there somewhere…”

Recommended study for mar-com professionals.


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