Once upon a time, crisis communication could be led by an organization’s legal team. That ship has sailed. Now, to be effective, crisis communication must be led by trusted, knowledgeable and capable communicators who understand the importance of human values, clear and decisive language, and empathy.

That’s how Morten Paulsen established the foundation for discussion during the Crisis communication in the age of social media panel at #MNC2015. Also on the panel was former Sun Media journalist Rebecca Thompson, Tom Flanagan and moderator Thompson MacDonald.

Paulsen was a member of the crisis communication team for Maple Leaf Foods during the company’s Listeria crisis of 2008. It became Canada’s Tylenol moment, a crisis success story. Led by president Michael McCain and his human values, the company survived the crisis and has thrived since. Handled differently, the company might not exist today.

A simple plan, a tough decision.

Good communicators know silence is a vacuum that, if not filled by you, will be filled by someone else. Social media enables that to happen at lightning speed. Which means, the best course of action in the age of social media is move quickly to:

  1. Acknowledge the event
  2. Take accountability
  3. List the two or three things the organization will do to address the issue
  4. Show proof that the course of action has been followed

Legal teams Hate this (with a capital ‘H’). They view taking accountability, and especially issuing an apology, as assuming all liability.

In deciding to listen to the legal team or the communication team, organizational leaders are forced to choose between preserving assets and value (legal focus), or brand and reputation (communicator focus)?

Without a strong brand and reputation, there can be no assets or value.

Paulsen explained how McCain did some simple math. The legal team had advised him that taking responsibility for the deaths and illnesses resulting from Listeria in his company’s products would likely lead to class action suits adding up to about $150 million. McCain responded that he was managing a $4.7 billion brand. With that, he dismissed the lawyers from the crisis team and said he would call when the class action suits were launched.

In addition to press conferences, Maple Leaf Foods sent emails to stakeholders, provided information and updates on a website, and published a video of McCain’s heartfelt apology with details on what the company was doing to address the issue to YouTube. Twitter wasn’t as significant a player at that time.

In all communications, McCain and Maple Leaf Foods led with the heart, not the head. This paved the way for the class action suits to be quietly settled out of court with families who were willing to work with McCain. They had seen how responsive and sincere he was, and that he had demonstrated accountability.

Social media and digital culture are constantly evolving.

Not every crisis impacts people’s safety and health. Often a crisis results from an expressed opinion, casual remark or poorly-communicated thought. These tend to be more colourful and play out on social media which, as Rebecca Thompson highlighted, delivers them as stories to the mainstream media.

More significantly, new tools and users who discover interesting ways to use them, mean social media activity constantly evolves in real-time. Targets must act incredibly quickly to issue a meaningful response. As Paulsen notes, this impacts the ability to think clearly in a crisis. Having a plan and a team to support you is important.

Once it happens, you have to deal with it.

The story of the Tom Flanagan pile-on is fairly well known in Canada. A video recording of remarks made by the professor about people who view child pornography made national headlines after the issue took hold on social media. He’s documented his story in the book persona non grata.

Flanagan related his experience, and that of Justine Sacco, to that of being in a car accident. Once it happens, there’s objective damage to deal with. This might involve a personal injury, financial loss and a recovery period.

Ultimately, your goal is survival. This is quite different from trying to be heard over your critics (you probably can’t). The damage can’t be immediately repaired, nor can you “spin” your way out of it. It will take time to rebuild, and it’s likely your platform will be greatly reduced in the long-term.

Part of Flanagan’s response strategy involved getting out of the spotlight for a period of time. He suggests making your statement — whether or not you believe you were wrong — acknowledge the situation then stop talking about it for a while. The story will fade or will more likely be replaced by the next person or organization that gets caught in a pile-on.

He also suggests reaching out to those you know will help support you, and getting back to your core competencies. Being focused will help you find your own direction and recovery path more quickly.

One more thing…

In our book TOUCHTod Maffin and I provide strategies for crisis communication and dealing with online pile-ons. We also offer a series of case studies of crisis communication successes and failures.