Social Media for Crisis Communications: Social Media as the Cause of Your Crisis

By Gerard Braud

YouTube Flicker Dominos VideoAs we examine the leadership gap, the generation gap, and shiny new object syndrome, let’s note that in many cases, in the world of crisis communications, social media can be a greater source of bad than good.

The fact that a citizen can post a picture of a plane crash before the airline knows about it is not good. The fact that a student is broadcasting a shooting to CNN before you even know about it is not good. The fact that your employees are part of a social media gossip loop before you send official communications to them is not good. Now, let us add to the discussion the fact that sometimes, social media is your crisis.

Case in point, Easter Day, April 16, 2009. Two employees at a Domino’s Pizza outlet were bored and started to shoot a video of themselves. One captured the other putting cheese inYouTube Flicker Dominos Video1 his nose, before placing the cheese on a pizza he was making. They then uploaded the video to YouTube.

It was an astute blogger who had a Google Alert for the word Domino’s that first saw the video. The blogger called Domino’s headquarters. The folks at Domino’s were not amused and not pleased, and they took steps internally to identify the employees and the store. But Domino’s did not anticipate that this video would become a viral wonder. They underestimated the YouTube audience. So here, we see multiple failings. There is the classic leadership gap, there is decision paralysis, and there is the generation gap.

Earlier in this collection of articles I told you that a cardinal rule of every crisis communications plan that I write is a mandate to communicate within one hour or less of the crisis going public. Obviously Domino’s did not have such a plan, because the one hour mark would have been reached one hour after they heard from the blogger. In many crises, at that one hour mark, depending upon the severity of the crisis, you would speak to any media who have arrived at your site; you would publish something to the web; and you would communicate with employees, via the web, via e-mail, and in severe situations, with an in person meeting.

What do you do in the new world of social media when “it” hits the fan?

In the world of decision paralysis, one of the problems is the fear that if the company says something, they may turn a nothing story into a bigger story than it should be. Hence, many companies, often on the advice of both attorneys and the communications department, say nothing. I have never subscribed to that rule and never will. I have successfully defused events that could have become major stories and lead to major lawsuits by bringing the story directly to traditional media. I believe that being pro-active and communicating bad news on your own is your best defense.

Add to your to-do list the need to have a discussion with your leadership and your legal department. In that discussion, you need to ask them under which circumstances they would suggest saying nothing. It needs to ultimately conclude with a decision to speak and disclose your potential crisis in almost every situation.

The system that I have created, using pre-written communications templates, has resolved that situation for all of my clients. This is due to the fact that lawyers get to see exactly what we plan to say, giving them time to approve all of the statements – sometimes months or years in advance.

The Domino’s case presents a to unique opportunity to respond in-kind, meaning respond to a YouTube video with a YouTube video and do it within one hour. Let me explain the magic of this approach. Domino’s eventually responded with a YouTube video, which we will discuss further in a moment. However, inside sources tell me that the general discussion within the organization was that for a company as big as Domino’s, if the story wasn’t on the front page of U.S.A. Today, then there was nothing to worry about.

Wrong! The offending video was posted late Sunday and by Tuesday evening, more than 250,000 people… more than a quarter of a million people had watched the video. By noon Wednesday, just 18 hours later, the video had more than 1 Million views on YouTube. The company learned the word Domino’s was being typed into more search engines than the word Paris Hilton. Domino’s was still thinking that out of 307 million people in the United States, only 1 million had seen the video, which was minimal in the big picture. I At 1 million hits the video got the attention of mainstream media and became a story among all major media outlets across the U.S.

So, what would you do? My answer is I would have had a YouTube video on YouTube within one hour of learning of the event, even if I didn’t know all of the facts. Why? Let me explain.

Rule 1. Respond within one hour or less, but in the case of social media we add a new rule.

Rule 2. Respond in-kind, meaning answer a YouTube video with a YouTube video. If, when you post your video, you use the same key words as the offending video, you can achieve nearly equal search engine optimization. That means that every time someone types the word Domino’s in a search engine, the corporate response would show up nearly as often as the offending video.

Domino’s eventually posted a message from the CEO to the web and they claim it was posted 48 hours after the offending video was posted. Furthermore, they claim this was ground breaking. For the record, I’ve been a corporate Vice President and I council executives on a regular basis as a crisis communications expert. I can imagine what was going on inside the company. Many executives were on Easter vacation and they were attempting to tackle the problem by long distance. People were busy trying to prosecute the employees. People were busy wordsmithing messages; people were massaging words. That’s always such bull.

CNN Ireport gerard braud snowJust as I shot a 15 second video in my snowy front yard and posted it as an i-Report for  CNN with less than an hour’s work, I could shoot a very brief on camera message that says,

“Hi, I’m Gerard Braud with Domino’s Pizza. There is a YouTube video circulating around with two people who identify themselves as Domino’s employees. In the video, they’re doing some pretty nasty stuff in the store. Chances are if you’re watching this, you’re looking for the other video. Let me just say that we’re in the process of identifying the people in the video so we can get to the bottom of this. Our focus now is to find out exactly what’s going on and how we can keep it from happening again. Stay tuned for an update.”

That’s it. That’s all that was needed. I don’t need to see a CEO. Some crisis communications trainers believe you should always send out “the top dog first.” I say bull. Usually the first person I push out the door as a spokesperson is a public relations spokesperson. I’ll send the CEO out later if the situation is severe enough, but in many cases a high level manager makes a good spokesperson, if he or she as been through proper media training.

Add to your to-do list the need to have a discussion with your team and your leadership to establish an understanding of who should be your first spokesperson in a crisis, and how many people you feel should undergo media training so they can serve as subject matter experts in the subsequent hour of your crisis.

I am a big believer that the CEO needs to be busy managing the crisis, especially in the early hours of the crisis, while others serve as the spokesperson. Only in the most extreme cases do I make the CEO the spokesperson, and even then, I generally roll out lower level experts first.

President Domino's Prank responseNow, back to the video from the Domino’s CEO. Yes, eventually it was posted. The CEO did a poor job of reading from cue cards off camera. No teleprompter, he made no eye contact with the camera and no, he isn’t someone who can ad lib well. Add to that, the statement was worded as an angry rant and by the time it was recorded, the CEO was an angry person. It was bad, it was too little and it was too late.

The Domino’s head of PR claims in an article published by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), that what Domino’s did was unprecedented and ground breaking. I disagree on several points. I’ve used YouTube videos many times before his crisis, and I’ll share some of those examples for you a bit later. I also live by the rule to communicate in one hour or less… not the Domino’s rule of one week or less. This isn’t rocket science, but it is about writing a crisis communications plan that works, using that plan, communicating in one hour or less, and involving leaders in crisis communications drills annually. Annual drills condition them to the idea that you must communicate quickly and that the CEO doesn’t have to be the primary spokesperson.

One final note on this topic – Every crisis communications plan that I write contains dozens of pre-written templates and your plan should too. Every item the leaders identify in the vulnerability assessment should have a companion, pre-written communications template. On a clear sunny day, when there is no anxiety and you have clarity of thought, you can write 75%-95% of what you would say on the day of the crisis. In the case of a restaurant chain, you would have a document that describes food tampering.  When the crisis hits, you’re not looking at a blank piece of paper. Rather, you are looking at a well-worded document that has already been vetted by the leaders and the legal department. You are looking at the same type of template that your leaders would have seen and used when you conducted your crisis communications drill. Spokespeople would be looking at and reading from the very same document they used during their media training class. This system gives everyone the confidence needed to communicate quickly in a crisis.

With that, get your to-do list out. If your crisis communications plan does not contain dozens of pre-written statements for all of the possible crises you could face, then you need to create such templates. If your plan does have templates, you need to schedule a quarterly review to determine if new templates need to be written.

If you don’t know how to write such templates, contact me and we can schedule a writing retreat for your team so that you can quickly fill your plan with the templates you will need.