Corporate Responsibility

Turning a Communications Crisis into an Opportunity

By Catherine Gryp (@cgryp)

As more than 67 million Americans watched the presidential debates last Wednesday night, former governor Mitt Romney ignited a social media firestorm when he expressed his views on federal funding of PBS:

“I’m sorry, Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS… I like PBS, I love Big Bird. Actually like you, too. But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”

Within minutes, Twitter accounts (like @FiredBigBird), spoofs and jokes abound. According to CBS News, “Twitter reported that Romney’s Big Bird comment peaked at 135,332 tweets per minute. Facebook’s U.S. Politics page reported that Big Bird was the fourth most mentioned debate-related term.”

Communicators across the country watched intently to see how PBS would respond. While this kind of statement had potential to be a crisis for the organization, it was also a unique opportunity for PBS to share its purpose, value and contributions to society.

How would your organization handle a crisis – or opportunity – of this scale? What lessons can we learn from PBS’ response?

1. Establish a Core Crisis Team

If a crisis were to hit your organization tomorrow, who would be responsible for your response? Which team members would focus on external audiences and which would handle internal? What if the crisis hit in the middle of the night – how would you contact your team?

It is essential to establish a Core Crisis Team before a crisis hits. This team should consist of members of different parts of the organization, all who have been trained on your crisis plan. A key component of your crisis plan will be the roles, responsibilities and contact information for each of these team members.

Only PBS can tell you if they had a Core Crisis Team in place, but from the coverage I’ve seen, there was no response from PBS or its affiliates until the day after the debates. By this time, PBS missed many of the key conversations about their brand.

2. Respond quickly where the conversation is occurring

Once your organization has decided to respond publicly and prepared your key messages, it’s time to contribute value to the conversation. But where would your response be most effective? You have to go to the conversation – it won’t come to you.

After Romney’s statements, most conversations occurred on social media sites. PBS was in a sticky situation, because as a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, they are unable to comment on political campaigns. However, they have every right to explain the value of the organization, their use of federal funding and to describe how important donations are to the organization.

It wasn’t until around 10 a.m. the next day that the PBS official Twitter account made a few very small mentions of Romney’s comments, one tweet linking to the company’s official statement and another tweet directing people to www.valuepbs.org.

Most people looking for more information about PBS would likely have visited their website, and to date, PBS has not put anything about this issue on their home page. This is a lost opportunity to inform and engage consumers where they are seeking information.

In addition, there wasn’t much information available on PBS’ official Facebook page, although they did drive viewers to the 170 Million American for Public Broadcasting Facebook page. This page has provided great content since the day after the debate, including an infographic, call to action headlining Big Bird and open conversation about the value of PBS. This page was left open to both positive and negative comments, creating an outlet for candid conversation.

3. Engage third party advocates

Prior to a crisis, you should have already built relationships with third party advocates. These relationships with organizations and individual leaders can be essential in regaining trust after a crisis.

Since Romney’s debate statement, many have come out in support of PBS. Michael Davis, author of a New York Times bestselling book detailing the history of Sesame Street, wrote a USA Today op-ed in defense of PBS. In addition, a former Reading Rainbow host spoke out against Romney’s comments.

While we don’t know if PBS helped orchestrate any of these responses, it’s important to have in place third party advocates should a crisis occur.

4. Train your spokespeople

You never know when your spokespeople will be required to speak effectively about an issue challenging your organization. Whether it’s a town hall meeting or a Dateline interview, the best chance for you to deliver on your messages and take control of a crisis is to be prepared in advance.

Using key messages should be second nature for your spokespeople. They should practice media interviews across all mediums. This is the only way you will be prepared when a crisis hits, and you need to explain your perspective on CNN, like PBS’ CEO Paula Kerger or Sesame Street’s executive vice president Sherrie Westin did in the days following the debate.

5. Know your end goal

All your communications activities should support an established end goal. After a data breach, you need to restore confidence and trust in your organization. After a natural disaster, your focus may be communicating compassion for those affected and supporting the community. No matter the crisis, your entire team should be clear about the end goal for communications and work toward that end.

PBS’ end goal seems to be establishing the value of the organization, as well as encouraging consumer activism and engagement through 170 Million American for Public Broadcasting.

6. Have a plan

The most important thing your organization can do to turn your next crisis into an opportunity is to have a crisis communications plan in place. This plan should be readily available to key decision makers in the organization, and you should both practice and update it regularly. That way when a crisis hits – because it’s not if, it’s when – you’ll be ready.

How do you think PBS has handled this crisis? What would you do if you were on their Core Crisis Team?

Images courtesy of PBS and @FiredBigBird.

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6 Comments on “Turning a Communications Crisis into an Opportunity

  1.  by  Mildred
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    Very informative and well written

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  3.  by  Rachael Seda
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    Great points and tips. I think PBS really missed a good opportunity but hopefully they’ll learn from this (and read your post!) so they’re prepared for the next time. Because of course there will be a next time!

  4.  by  Victoria Davis
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    Catherine Gryp, while my knowledge of image management is limited since I am a college student still studying the basics, I do not need extensive background to identify that PBS dropped the ball in this crisis. Social media is such a driving force in this field. It is essential for success. In my opinion, there is no excuse to why PBS did not have their thumb on what was being said across social media sites. Contributing to the discussions would have been a sure fire way to nip this crisis in the bud.

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