Blog ROI: Firefighting10 ways to maximize your blog's ROI: Part 5, crisis communications

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Firefighter battling blaze

You'll never find your communications skills put to the test more strenuously than during a crisis. Even the best of organizations feels the strain when a crisis hits, whether it's a scandal, a service interruption, a product recall or a natural disaster.

Yet crises are exactly the time when good communications can make an enormous difference. You need to convey clear, consistent messages and information to the people who need it... and you need to be listening well enough to know whether those messages are getting through and having an impact. And, as all of that swirls around you, you need to know if the situation out there has changed, and if so, how to react.

What's at stake? The goodwill of your audience, your relationships with decision-makers, your entire brand reputation, even the personal safety and well-being of your customers - depending on the situation, it could all be in jeopardy. So when we're thinking about ROI, that's some tangible value you're defending.

Relying on the media to get the word out can be a dicey bet. Your agenda isn't the same as a reporter's, and whether it's through an editorial decision or a misunderstanding, your message can get seriously garbled by the time it hits the front page or the evening news. And that's assuming the news cycle is fast enough to reach people with timely information.

That's not to say you shouldn't turn to the mass media – you almost certainly should. If your crisis is big enough, they'll be talking about it, and you want to be part of that conversation. But they'll be editing, interpreting and filtering - and even if your key message emerges intact, you're unlikely to deliver much detail or context that way.

With a blog, on the other hand, you get to communicate the whole message. It stays up 24-7, so you don't have to worry that your audience missed a newscast. And you can link to resources and detailed facts, giving people access to as much information as they need.

Better yet, it's instantaneous: you aren't waiting on anyone's editorial schedule. That can be critical in a quickly evolving situation, when an urgent update has to reach people <em>now</em>. Some of those people - including reporters - will be happy to be able to follow the situation via your RSS feed, giving them real-time updates.

But perhaps just as much value comes from the fact that you get feedback, in the form of comments and trackbacks, from the people you're reaching. They can let you know when the information you're giving them isn't adequate, isn't clear enough or doesn't ring true. If your relationship with them is strong enough, they may alert you to online critics and media coverage you hadn't come across. And they may well rebroadcast your message through their own channels - this time with the added weight of their implicit endorsement.

Here are some of the ways you can get the most value from your blog in a crisis:

  • This post can't begin take the place of a crisis communications strategy - but your plan should be a fully integrated part of that strategy. Make sure you have the full buy-in of your communications leadership now... because convincing them in the middle of a crisis is a lot harder.
  • There's conflicting advice out there on whether you should use an existing blog for crisis communications, or prep a dedicated blog ready to launch whenever it's needed. My advice: create a category on your current blog for crisis posts, with its own feed. (If you think it's necessary to have a dedicated crisis blog, use that feed to populate a separate blog.) That way you can draw on your existing relationship capital when the time comes, while still maintaining a dedicated channel for crisis updates.
  • Have a crisis blogging plan in place now, when you have the luxury of time (and the clear-headedness that's hard to find when your fight-or-flight mechanism is in full cry). Lay down the wiring for either a blog category or a dedicated blog; set out the protocol for deciding when crisis blogging is in operation, and when it comes to an end; decide who will write crisis blog posts (and what happens to regular blogging for the duration of the crisis); what levels of crisis you'll plan for (some demand the full weight of your communications apparatus; others may require very narrow channels) and work out a streamlined process for any approvals that might be needed.
  • When the crisis hits, activate the plan, and be sure that everyone connected to the blog knows it... including your audience. Let them know it won't be business as usual for a while, and that this is the place to come for the very latest news and information.
  • Manage expectations around engagement and responding to comments. If it looks like the person who normally manages the blog is going to be sucked into the larger communications maelstrom, let your readers know it may take longer to get back to them. But...
  • Leave comments and trackbacks on if at all possible... and ask your readers for their feedback and questions. Explain you may not be able to get back to everyone individually, but that you'll try to answer as many questions as possible, including the most urgent.
  • If the flow of questions is overwhelming, don't even try to reply one by one. Instead, take a few minutes to cluster the questions into themes, and then address those - possibly in the form of an FAQ, with an emphasis on answers to the most frequently-aseked, important and urgent questions.
  • If you realize a previous blog post is in error, or worse is fueling or even causing the crisis, don't give in to the temptation to go back and change history. By all means correct the mistake - please - but do it in a transparent way; combination of strikeout text through the error and a correction styled for emphasis will serve you better than trying to fudge things. Your reputation is already on the line, and this is the the worst time to risk it.
  • Let your readers know how they can help. Encourage them to spread the word, especially if you're dealing with rumours or misinformation. Arming them with facts rather than spin, and positive rather than negative messages, increases the likelihood that they'll be enthusiastic and effective communicators on your behalf. (And never hang your readers out to dry. Don't equip them with a message that won't stand up to scrutiny; they'll end up looking like idiots, and they'll never forgive you.)
  • Give your readers a peek behind the scenes. Let them see the human face of your efforts, the people who are working day and night to resolve the situation and get things back to normal. It's a lot easier to be patient with Cathy, who's plowing tirelessly through a stack of customer complaints, than with Humongous Impersonal Company Inc.
  • After things settle down, give your readers a debriefing. If your organization was at fault, apologize; if not, commiserate. Tell the entire story, including the causes of the crisis, the steps you took to resolve it and what you're doing to keep it from happening again. And if your readers are part of that story, give them plenty of credit and thanks for their role.

And here are four ways you'll know your blog has helped see you through the storm:

  • Your readers thank you for keeping them informed
  • Your messages are picked up on other blogs
  • Your responses show up as rebuttals to your critics
  • You emerge from the crisis with more readers, a more engaged community and stronger relationships.


Chrystie Hill says

March 15, 2009 - 9:23pm

I work for (a learning community for library staff) and we recently blogged about our layoffs (Jan 09). It was difficult but I'm glad we did it. Although we didn't get a lot of comments or questions - we did hear through back channels that word was getting around and it was mostly concern for our departing colleagues, as well as other internal staff. Our executive leadership supported the blog and signed off on all related talking points. When we posted the actual blog post, it was from one prominent staff person's point of view (trying to retain the personal, heart-felt nature of the situation). Still, some in our parent org were disturbed by our openness and they asked us to hurry up and blog some more (so as to take off the home page, top of blogrolls, etc.). Some staff members also found the personal, one-voice, style and tone of the "announcement" on the blog to be inappropriate. (I do wish I had sent a note to all internal bloggers before it went up, letting see the text of the post before the rest of our community.) When trade press started asking questions, there was a moment of concern that maybe we had "caused a(nother) crisis," as you say, but in the end I think we did the right thing by letting our community know what had happened, how it was impacting us personally, and that our community would still be going strong through all these transitions.

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