When Blogs Attack (Someone Behind the Curtain May Be Pulling Their Strings)

(Third in a three-part series on crisis communications in the 21st century.)

Force for Good Force for good Force for good

My last two posts touched on aspects of crisis communications that too often are over-looked: how your company’s adversaries can hi-jack the news cycle and keep you on the defensive day after day as they wait for your company’s will to break; and how these media-savvy adversaries are surely going to turn to citizen-generated media to amp up the pressure in attacking companies on multiple fronts.

.Force for Good Force for Good Force 

Here’s a prediction that you can take to Vegas: In 2007 a major corporation will face a crippling reputational crisis that will include a relentless swarm of bloggers who will not be assuaged with traditional crisis communications practices.

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I’m not talking about an annoying chorus of boos from the blogs like Wal-Mart and Edelman endured last fall after their “flog” was exposed – but an all-out crisis with multi-million dollar litigation fueling the critics’ fury.

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This is not to suggest that bloggers will be bought wholesale by trial lawyers. No, they will cooperate willingly and for free – played like pawns by lawyers who have used the same tactic with mainstream media. The lawyers will appeal to the citizen-writers’ righteous indignation at what will appear to be callous disregard for human suffering.

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The biggest corporations are most vulnerable. Short-tempered critics suspect the worst from big companies like IBM, Microsoft and Wal-Mart. The public has little patience for arrogant, out-of-touch executives and seems to particularly enjoy seeing a giant humbled.

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Of course, some scoundrels deserve to be relentlessly scrutinized and, ultimately, prosecuted, like the executives who pillaged the shareholders and employees of Enron, World-Com, Global Crossing and other infamously ruined companies. Or anyone who knowingly builds and sells dangerously defective products.

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But the criminally inclined executive is the exception. In a time when information moves so quickly, there is no profit motive in building a cheap but dangerous product. Bad actors will be found out, their companies will suffer the consequences and they probably will, too.

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So let’s draw a distinction between the few genuinely perverse psycho-executives and the leadership team at your company. (Hopefully, there is a difference.) Chances are they’re trying their best to satisfy customers, comply with regulations and honestly earn a healthy profit. Companies are run by fallible human beings and their mistakes can be horrendous. With good advice from their empowered PR counselors, the responsible executives own up to mistakes, apologize and move quickly to correct the problems.

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But that’s not good enough for some. We are a litigious society and the ambulance-chasers are lurking in the darkness waiting for your company to slip. And honest mistakes don’t win huge settlements or jury verdicts, so they are going to look for malfeasance even where there is none.

What do you do if you find your company in crisis mode for an honest mistake (or series of mistakes) that you’re doing your best to correct?

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Here are some practical, tactical thoughts:

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  • Don’t let critics characterize your company as a faceless monolith. Nothing stokes up the gonzo bloggers like the idea of an evil empire stepping on the little guy. Your job is to put a human face on your company. Behind the scenes, regular people are trying their best to develop good, safe products that they can be proud of – find ways to show real people making agonizingly real decisions.
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  • Counter emotional attacks with clear-headed facts to set the record straight, but don’t hesitate to show a little emotion yourself at the right time. Remember you’re a company of human beings. Showing empathy is a good thing. Getting angry at your attackers is not; get even by not letting them get to you. 

  • When a crisis strikes, you will not be able to keep up with the blogs with individualized answers. Make sure your media website is updated frequently and that it features prominently a section geared specifically to correcting misinformation buzzing around the blogosphere. Direct blogs to your website, but most importantly, make your website relevant to them and they’ll seek it out.
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  • Beware of astro-turf opposition. Trial lawyers with millions to gain in forcing settlements or in certifying class-actions may bankroll an aggrieved customer and use him as a front man for an orchestrated “grass-roots” campaign. Telltale sign:  when a obscure website starts getting lots of attention and the suddenly ready-for-prime-time victim makes the most of the spotlight. This is the one instance in which you do want to engage some intelligent bloggers. It’s certainly been shown that bloggers will pile on the criticism when they detect an astro-turf campaign financed by a big corporation, but will they pile on against an astro-turf campaign financed by a profiteering trial lawyer? They will if you can clearly show hypocrisy, not just in the fake grass-roots campaign but in the “I’m-just-a-little-guy-fighting-for-other-little-guys” lawyer who drives a Bentley when he’s between flights on his private jet.
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  • Stick to your high-integrity communications principles. Force for Good means THIS: transparency, honesty, integrity and social responsibility. Stay true to these values and you’ll weather the storm.

- Jon Harmon

Comments

  1. Mihaela Lica says:

    Well, Jon… that’s what I call PR! Great article. It’s always a pleasure to read your blog.

  2. PR Guy says:

    I agree with your comments 100%. As a PR exec who has worked in crisis situations off and on for 30 years, I’ve participated in my share of disasters. But in all those years working on the inside I never came across the kind of evil business character that is so commonplace in movies and on TV. The senior leaders and managers I worked with were all decent people trying to do the right thing under difficult circumstances. Off the record, I used to tell journalists it would be accurate to characterize us as blundering bureaucrats, but not as an corporate evildoers. Mistakes happen, working hard and in good faith to correct them should count for something.

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