Crisis Communications in Real Time: It’s About Agility, Judgment

It’s no secret that news travels at the speed of a millisecond in today’s social/digital reality, yet for many companies, response time to mobilize around an issue often seems to be stuck in a different era. The key is accelerating responsiveness while ensuring thorough contingency analysis and planning, thanks in part to the availability of real-time analytics.  At W2O we’ve taken an in-depth look at how to make companies more agile improving their judgment and mitigating problems before they blossom.

How do we do this? We conduct a proprietary, real-time simulation process we call Inception, to pressure-test clients around preparedness. It’s an interactive workshop in which teams confront and respond to a crisis situation that emerges in a social/digital world.  In the debrief following the session, strengths and weaknesses in operational decision-making processes, intelligence-gathering, analytics, content development, and use of communication channels are identified, as are best practices.

Additionally, we follow a playbook. The playbook for an efficient and effective issues process in a digital world includes the following elements:

  • Effective triage increases decision-making. Some issues are urgent and important; others more of nuisance. If there’s a complicated, multi-person process for figuring out which is which—or conversely no process at all—company responses will be slow, muddled, and inefficient. Triage is a good solution. Just as hospital emergency departments employ triage professionals, corporations should have people trained to evaluate crises, make quick decisions, and rally resources rapidly when the situation warrants. Does yours? Are there clearly established internal signals that let him or her clarify within the organization that one issue is a “red ball” while others can be allowed to quiet down on their own?
  • A tight response team ensures you to stay agile. It’s hard to be nimble when you’re too large.  What’s the minimum team size needed to get results fast? Often you can get 90% of what you need from a small team; waiting for the missing 10% can immobilize you. Plan in advance who’s to be on the core team, put their contact information on speed-dial, and ensure they can be reached 24/7. (Equally important: knowing who’s not on this team. Rapid response sometimes requires sidestepping or tactfully saying no to some people who want to be involved but aren’t critical to the decision or immediately available to weigh in.)
  • Calibrate responses based on the platform and expectation; pre-authorize experts. Response time is directed by platform ad channel. Each has its own cadence, frequency, and expectation.  As such, knowing who in your organization has the experience and judgment to respond to key parts of the issue? Ideally, that go-to person should be pre-identified and pre-authorized by the C-suite to speak on the issue, independently providing reassurance while a more complete strategy gets formulated. Interim responses calm panic and let key audiences know you’re aware of the situation and working on solutions.
  • Address the short-term; deal with the long-term. At W2O, we recommend immediate response ideas with a more strategic long-term outlook built into the plan. It’s easier to put issues in perspective when you have initial solutions at hand with the ability to pivot to a longer-term approach; without these starter ideas, the issue can hover longer than it should.
  • Let data and realtime analytics provide the pathway. In times past, you needed to field a research study to gauge the impact of a situation and response to it. Today, you can use near-instantaneous real-time analytics to course-correct and fine-tune your efforts quickly before, during and immediately after a crisis hits. More importantly, if you are doing predictive analytics regularly, mapping potential issues that you can plan for (understanding that there are some you won’t see coming) you can actually spot an issue bubbling up in the earliest of instances and nip it before it hits The New York Times.
  • Respect the news highway. Information is power.  In a fast-paced, ever-changing media and influence environment it is critical that everyone involved in a crisis is educated on how news and opinion forms and flows.  That goes for traditional earned media most of which is also on-line today making sharing and syndication quicker and easier than ever before; the influence on social media posts by anyone with influence, media or not media, and how that can create a firestorm, often without context, within hours all the way up to the national evening news; to paid syndication of earned media and how that amplifies messaging in ways never seen in the past; to the importance of having active social channels and information on all the key influencers who follow and are engaged with your organization, to get into the discussion quickly in the same places where a crisis could be taking flight.    A little education will go a long way for most companies in this area.
  • Value speed over perfection. Issues often swirl out of control due to a lack of responsiveness that is the byproduct of being perfect. Getting your point-of-view out there quickly and updating based on new information is the difference between reputational damage and reputational gain.

Being aware and trained early on is the best remedy for mitigating an issue.  Some companies believe that a social media flare-up won’t affect them, some know it but don’t know how to prepare or get ahead of it with speed, but those who have experienced one know just how much damage can quickly occur.

Issues management and crisis preparedness in a digital age has taken on new meaning causing organizations to deal with the situation in an agile manner often upending traditional corporate protocols and processes.

Those that adopt and adapt quickly will emerge unscathed.  Those that don’t will deal with the consequences.


If you’re interested in knowing more about W2O, check out our About page.

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Jennifer Gottlieb
Jennifer Gottlieb

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