Understanding Risk Communication to Avert a PR Crisis in Social

Falling Dominoes

Or how, in the words of Dr. Peter Sandman, ignorance can lead to enthusiasm as easily as to panic. He was the first to define how risk in this context equals hazard plus outrage. In other words, people are already predisposed to getting upset when activists, pundits, and journalists — all with a propensity to alarm people as part of their agenda — do just that.

These groups known how to plug into that mechanism and engage herd behavior and ride its wave. Winning a cause, looking to pitch themselves to a potential client, and gaining readership are their respective goals.

Stirring the pot is especially easy when the organization goes silent.

A crisis can emerge from the mishandling of communications about an incident. Right or wrong, perception or reality, ignoring or misleading people (those formerly known as public) is a losing strategy. I've written it before, the genesis of crisis through social media resembles more risk communications.

The exception that confirms the rule: BP

There are true disasters. Although BP butchered and mishandled communications to an epic degree — so much so that it left the field wide open for someone who goes by Leroy Stick — what the company caused has catastrophic repercussions. Stick gained a large following on Twitter @BPGlobalPR by saying what so many were thinking — show us the truth.

The current issue of PRSA The Strategist covers some of this story, so I won't duplicate it. When we talk about crisis, we should think communication about action. This is especially true when the hazard is real and serious. When you have an oil spill of BP's proportion, it is a disaster. You should not attempt to treat differently, not in your actions, nor  in your communications.

Quoting from the article: As Leroy Stick said in an interview with Ad Age:
“This isn’t a PR nightmare, it’s an actual nightmare.” BP won’t be able
to fix its reputation until it fixes the leak — and even the best
communications effort couldn’t overcome that crisis. This is even truer
today as the Internet has proven effective at exposing the gap between
what companies say and what they actually do

If you're looking for proof that what Leroy Stick resonated, run a search with his name, and see the stories in Mother Jones, CNBC, The Huffington Post, Mashable, Daily Finance, etc.

The new PR needs to learn how to handle risk communications

Not to downplay what resonates with communities, in many cases, the hazard is mild, or isolated. Company experts evaluate risk by calculating its magnitude times its probability. People don't measure or estimate risk the same way.

The terms Dr. Sandman uses are not perfect, linguistically. Hazard is a technical term you probably wouldn't use, unless you're a risk manager, and outrage implies the anger or upset is justified. We should keep this imprecision in mind, as we focus on risk communications.

A gap in perception can crater your best efforts as communicator. Because company experts will invariably have a cavalier attitude towards public outrage, and the public will misunderstand the nature of the hazard — which shows up as "I don't care about the technicalities, this is bad by me."

You need to learn how to navigate this dichotomy to handle as crisis in social.

12 questions to ask in risk communication

When people assume risk voluntarily, they have a lesser chance of getting upset. The same is true when they understand the implications of a decision *they* make. In other words, being in control, retaining the power to decide whether to opt in, even when you can opt out, there is no outrage.

An example of that is sky diving — you decide if you want to jump out of a plane on your own. Although plenty of things can go wrong — in other words, the activity is inherently dangerous — you assume that risk. So there is no outrage. 

In Responding to Community Outrage (Amazon affiliate link), Dr. Sandman lists 12 questions that will help you in understanding where outrage comes from:

  1. is is voluntary or coerced? (as in the example above)
  2. is is natural or industrial?
  3. is it familiar or exotic?
  4. is it not memorable or memorable?
  5. is it not dreaded or dreaded?
  6. is it chronic or catastrophic?
  7. is it knowable or not knowable?
  8. is it controlled by me or others?
  9. is it fair or unfair?
  10. is it morally irrelevant or morally relevant?
  11. can I trust you or not?
  12. is the process responsive or unresponsive?

Why companies that embrace new media face lower outrage

By now, after reading that list of questions, you are probably figuring out part of why on your own. Take the last one and think about your process. Is your company showing this in online interactions?

  • does the company look open or secretive?
  • are customer service people apologetic or do they seem to be stonewalling?
  • are representatives courteous or rude?
  • does the organization share or go against community values?
  • do the communications teams show compassion, or do they come across as dispassionate?

Responsive wins. So does establishing a trusting relationship, communicating about the actions you are taking, given what you know so far, etc.

You need to combine this information with hands on experience in building advocacy groups and facilitating communities. Working with activist groups gives you additional and precious insights. I have great respect for the work Greenpeace did with Green my Apple, for example.

There are many organizational barriers to understanding risk communication. However, to avert a PR crisis, especially when they are active in social, businesses need to change in favor of embracing those questions, and supporting their community managers with plans, training, and faster decision making at the top.

Start with those who champion a more open approach, and help them open the dialogue inside your organization. Will PR professionals accept they may have a lot to learn from digital marketers, for example? Who is the executive sponsor in social?

[image courtesy of free 2 be]


On October 27, I will discuss social crisis communication in a Powered Webinar. Mark your calendar and stay tuned for more information.

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0 responses to “Understanding Risk Communication to Avert a PR Crisis in Social”

  1. Excellent, and very thorough, post. I really feel that more companies should definitely embrace social media, even if on a small scale. So many companies limit their scope of social media to thinking that it’s only Twitter and Facebook. Little do they know that there is a lot of interactions that can be housed on their very sites without the need to turn to outside sources to provide that sense of community.
    What few seem to realize is, when a PR nightmare strikes it looks worse when you scramble to create an online presence in order to handle the situation and there’s no community to support you. It simply looks like a poor attempt for damage control.
    Having an already established presence online seems to temper some of that immediate backlash by allowing the company to respond to situations to an already existing community. When something happens, it’s not like they are scrambling to find people who will listen, because they’ve already made an earlier attempt to reach out.
    Better to have it when you need it, then need it when you don’t have it. Just my two cents!

  2. Valeria —
    I am in the middle of an overhaul of our crisis plan, and there has been no better wake-up call to get executives on board with the changes we need to make now.
    The first major change is the realization that there’s no “news cycle” anymore… and crisis means being on the clock all the time. With that understanding, you have to sell your C-Suite on having a strategic communications team, empowered to approve messages and directions in real time.
    The second big change involves “public triage.” Recognizing the areas of public concern, and tracking them quantitatively and qualitatively. Those making the strategic decisions need to know what rumors and public concerns are most threatening, and which ones are most prevalent.
    Finally, I am giddy that you bring Risk Communication into this — because quite frankly few communicators understand the effects of hazard on the very people you most need to reach. Brain chemistry is different, and you must tailor your messages to persuade the parts of the brain you can engage.
    We’ll talk it out over coffee one afternoon.

  3. @Luis – the era of the dark site that goes live only in a crisis is quickly disappearing. Not having established relationships before a time of need is a major issue when a crisis takes hold in social networks. You said it best: you need a community of supporters. If you don’t have audience, develop one. Build relationships, attract evangelists and advocates.
    @Ike – we are always on, isn’t that the truth. An there is probably no amount of fire drills that will help a reluctant executive team to give some power to the communications troops. However, having a framework in place with decisions made ahead of time on the tone and extent of response, is very helpful. It takes some of the emotion and lizard brain out of the equation. Excellent suggestion on the “public triage”. The other side of the PR coin, knowing what mainstream and social media stories may take a bite out of your reputation or involve your company in some way. We’re passed just saying we’re sorry. The other side of that is knowing what skeletons are in your closet. The time of reckoning with your communications people. Combining work in brain development and risk management, with being keenly aware of the psychology of group behavior, gives you some interesting insights into conversations and how they develop and escalate. It will be a great cup of coffee. Hope we can meet at an upcoming event.

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