A few months ago in early February, a Congressman attended a meeting of the House Ways and Means Committee. At a little after 2PM, he cast a vote on an issue before the committee. Just shy of a half hour later, the Web site Gawker posted a shirtless photograph of the married Congressman that was itself posted to Craig’s List in correspondence with a woman who had placed an ad under the category of “Women Seeking Men”. In response to inquiries, there was a statement that it was believed that the Congressman’s account had been hacked. At a little after 2:30, I saw the story posted on Facebook. By 3:30, approached by media about the matter the Congressman was quoted as saying that he needed to speak with his wife. By 5 PM, just less than three hours after casting his last vote and only 2 and a half hours after the story appeared on the Internet, the Congressman was no longer a Congressman. In a breathtaking span of less than three hours, a crisis unfolded on the Internet and consumed a Congressional career in the speed of its path. In short, crisis communications is not the crisis communications of your father – not even of your older brother. In only 5 years, social media has changed crisis communications entirely.
The Case of the Shirtless Congressman is dramatic. Many crises are less so, but they do not necessarily have to be. In fact, under the circumstances, there is perhaps little that could have been done to mitigate the damage from this virtual tsunami. This one just represents how much things of changed. But it also says something about the need for involvement.
Pharmaceutical companies have been behind the curve on the social media front because of regulatory concerns. And FDA’s DDMAC is so far behind the curve, they don’t even seem to understand there is a curve. But in spite of that, there is actually now a bustling hive of activity in fact, with hundreds of pharma twitter feeds, multiple Facebook pages and a smattering of YouTube channels. Many are now developing apps. But overall, pharma is certainly behind other sectors in social media development and having a few assets developed may not be enough. They need to be developed, cultivated, strategized and utilized correctly. If you have a YouTube channel, that can be very handy during a crisis. If you have a rotten YouTube channel that no one subscribes to and you make pretty lousy videos – then, not so much.
There are two things that emerge as important changes in the crisis situation in today’s era:
- First, early detection is important. It is much better to detect the budding of a crisis as it is happening rather than learn about it when you pick up the phone and a reporter is calling you about it before you even know it is happening. Early detection allows one to assess and analyze the (1) the messaging – what is being said and what do you think about what is being said; and (2) the currency of the communication – are the people who are spreading it likely to tip the point so that it is wide spread, or is it spreading among people who have very little following and/or credibility?
- Second, if you don’t have social media assets that will allow you to respond and get your messaging into play on the matter, then you should know what kinds of social media assets your strongest allies have and how you can leverage them. But once the crisis starts, if you don’t have these assets yourself, it is too late to develop them and likewise, if you have not assessed those of your allies, you will now lose valuable time.
I have a presentation called “Crisis in a Keystroke” where I outline how quickly a crisis can unfold via social media and the types of forms that can take that is portrayed through a fictional “case study” of a crisis I made up. The bottom line of that presentation is that everyone these days needs what I refer to as the MAP for Crisis in today’s environment. That is the ability to (1) Monitor what is happening; (2) Assess the impact and (3) have Platforms on which to respond. If one hasn’t planned that far in advance, one can be in for a very rough time. Crisis used to unfold on the evening news or the morning paper. Today, it happens in a keystroke. That is a change that needs to be apparent to all. Otherwise, you could be in the frying pan without even a clue.