Will You Be Ready When the Fifth Estate Attacks?

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

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In my last post, I took a look at how media-savvy adversaries took control of the news cycle in the 2000 Firestone tire crisis. Plaintiff-attorneys and their associated resources groups looking to cash in big on litigation seized control of the news cycle through a calculated strategy of daily leaks. The steady flow of leaked document fragments was designed to portray Ford and Firestone as deliberately ignoring safety risks in the pursuit of profit.

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Journalists tend to be sympathetic to tips on stories that might expose an abuse of power – whether by Big Government or Big Business. That’s why the media is often referred to as the Fourth Estate – keeping a watchful eye on the established estates of power. Many, if not most, journalists consider it their quasi-sacred duty to serve as a watchdog of the powerful. When tipped off to a potential story about an abuse of power, they often begin with a presumption of guilt that can be very difficult to overcome.

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The rise of citizen-generated media throws the investigative dynamic into further imbalance. Citizen journalists tend overwhelmingly to be suspicious of big institutions and they show little restraint in attacking those who they believe to be guilty.

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The emergence of this “Fifth Estate” of consumers using blogs and other digital means of word-of-mouth opinion-sharing presents a new dynamic in crisis communications. Most public relations staffs and agencies are fundamentally ill-equipped to deal with this dynamic. (I say, “deal with” as opposed to “combat” because success in consumer-generated media is all about constructive engagement. And, by the way, the term "Fourth Estate" apparently was originally coined by Henry Fielding in 1752 in reference to the unruly mob of the common man revolting against established powers — "unruly mob" is not a bad metaphor for the citizen bloggers.) 

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One universal truth: Now more than ever, a company needs to act quickly and decisively in communicating awareness and concern, and in fixing the problem. The advent of the new media has greatly compressed the cycle from first incident to media investigation to public outcry to devastating impact on a company’s reputation.

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Every public relations pro with crisis communications responsibility (or wanting to add this vital capability) would do well to become acquainted with the Kryptonite bike lock recall of September 2004. Less Kryptonite_lock than 10 days after a Kryptonite customer posted a note to bikeforums.net complaining that anyone could use a Bic pen to open a rugged and expensive Kryptonite lock, a “blogstorm” forced the company to issue a total product recall at a cost of at least $10 million.

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The Kryptonite experience should drive home the importance of monitoring the digital conversation about your brand and products because a ground swell of dissatisfaction could already be forming under your radar screen. Listen and be attentive for signs of trouble. Above all, be prepared to act quickly to remedy problems.

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However, like any good case study, the Kryptonite example is layered in complexity that is often overlooked. Dave Taylor’s interview with Kryptonite PR Manager Donna Tocci provides valuable insight into how the company responded to the crisis, and his post should be required reading for anyone serious about crisis communications in the 21st century. Although Kryptonite missed a critically important opportunity at the outset in waiting three days to respond to the first posting, the company did move very quickly in determining the problem, identifying a fix and announcing the recall. (More from Donna Tocci’s perspective on Global Neighbourhoods.)

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Lessons in new media management learned from the Kryptonite case study:

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·        Begin listening now to the conversations taking place about your company, brands and products.

·        Develop constructive relationships with the most influential bloggers.

·        Make sure your crisis communications plan includes frequent updates to your website. When a crisis strikes, you won’t be able to answer every complaint on every blog. But you can direct online media, bloggers and customers in general to your own digital crisis center.

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(Next post: Tactical and practical tips in handling the next crisis.)

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- Jon Harmon

Comments

  1. Thanks for a balanced post on Kryptonite. Donna is a friend of mine, so my view might be skewed, but she did the right thing at the right time, just the right time had moved.
    If that makes sense.

  2. jon harmon says:

    Conventional wisdom tends to be black and white; either you were a hero or a boob. But life is more complicated than that and so are our jobs.

  3. Firestone Tire Location

    Company: BFS Retail & Commercial Operations, LLC S

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