Has Social Media Made “Crisis Communications a Thing of the Past?


By Sven Larsen (@zemoga)

On July 26 at the ExL Pharma 6th Annual Public Relations & Communications Summit, Deborah Sittig led a panel discussion called “Social Media in a Crisis (for a full report on the session, including a summary from Sittig herself, check out John Macks post, “Using Social Media in a Crisis).

A lot of useful information was covered: case studies; how to do internal preparation and external relationship-development, and the need for active discussion as the event unrolls. What struck me most, though, was a phrase from Johns article, in which he posited that “the time to start managing a crisis is BEFORE it happens.

Yes, but no. Thats not enough. The forced transparency brought about by social media – the 24/7/365 conversation, the ability of a consumer to have as loud a voice as the official company line – means one thing:

Crisis communications as we know it is a thing of the past.

Gone are the days when it was admirable foresight to lock a dozen people in a conference room for a week to bang out information that would be stored in a fat three-ring binder on a shelf. Anyway, those reams of standby statements and org charts and contact lists usually functioned more as a superstitious talisman against the crisis ever happening than as anything practically useful.

Crises are now less predictable. Not their causes, of course – they always have been. If the causes of crises werent varied and surprising, they wouldnt be crises, would they?

But weve lost any ability to figure out which will explode and which will only spark. Any calculus that we once used to try to forecast what situations might become problematic is outdated. That math wont work anymore; wed need a New Math to do that.

Consider this example: one patient experiences a non-life-threatening side effect. No one would have done a crisis session like I described to prepare for that. But Taxotere patient Shirley Ledlie became a force that sanofi-aventis had to reckon with – and she did it because of social media.

What am I saying? Should companies just give up? Hide? Embrace chaos? Admit defeat?

Of course not.

Because you cant predict which situations will grow into crises, everything needs to be in place beforehand. This isnt crisis communications. This is just communications.

Get rid of the concept of crisis communications altogether. Stop calling it that. Youre implying that its a different animal, and its not. The only way to communicate successfully in a crisis in the pharmaceutical industry is to already have an organization of successful communicators.

You need a variety of honest, informative, responsive channels of communication, and you need them now – not when you have a crisis, and not in case you have a crisis, but because these are the new cost of doing business.

You need an empowered employee who is responsible for each of those channels – as part of their job description, by the way, not as an add-on.

You need to monitor for all mentions of your company and brands and executives.

You need to be using those communication channels to be talking to your customers, your investors, your media and your employees.

You need to be starting and keeping up the conversation, not waiting to respond.

Thats not crisis communications: thats communicating. And thats the New Math.

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