Jackie KolekJackie Kolek

Gun control debates. Racial tensions. Presidential tweets. The #Metoo movement. As communications professionals, we’ve never worked in a more volatile social and cultural environment. Just a few years ago, a major communications crisis constituted a workers’ strike at a factory or a vice president accused of embezzlement. But now those situations resemble the good old days by comparison.

Today, consumers view brands through the lens of where they stand on important social and cultural topics. A recent Global Strategy Group survey found that more 80 percent of people believe corporations should take action on important issues. Seventy-six percent said businesses should stand up for their political beliefs, whether or not they’re controversial. Consumers also want swift action: 52 percent said a company should respond to an event within 24 hours.

O'Dwyer's Apr. '18 Broadcast & Social Media PR MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's Apr. '18 Broadcast & Social Media PR Magazine

Working effectively in this new normal means we must be more prepared for potential issues and be innovative to predict vulnerabilities.

Here are four ways to thrive in this era of upheaval.

Assess all your risks

We all monitor for potential PR crises. But today, you must consider all your reputational risks and expand your monitoring strategy accordingly. Your brand may not have a political stance, but are any executives major political donors? #MeToo isn’t isolated to Hollywood, so has any executive ever been accused of sexual misconduct? And it’s not just your brand you need to worry about.

Smart activists are going after an organization’s entire business network. Following the Florida school shooting, they attacked the NRA by targeting brands offering discounts to NRA members. Does your company have any business relationships that are vulnerabilities? You need to think like an activist — or an investigative reporter — to assess all of your reputational risks.

Let your purpose do the talking

Given that many consumers want companies to speak out, do you know where yours stands? If your organization does not have a corporate purpose, it’s time to focus on one. A corporate purpose explains why a company exists beyond making money. What benefits does it bring to society?

If it does and your executives agree on it, you can work to define how that purpose relates to the issues of the day. Use it to decide what topics are appropriate for your company to own, and preplan responses to them if and when they emerge. If your healthcare company’s purpose is helping consumers live longer lives, prepare a meaningful statement on gun control. Alternatively, you may decide you don’t need to take a stand on immigration because it’s outside your purpose.

It’s also key to have your CEO ready to step out front with purpose-led messages. Three-quarters of Americans think CEOs have a responsibility to create social change, according to a study by Global Strategy Group.

An ounce of prediction

Armed with a comprehensive risk assessment, you can now turn to technology to monitor for trouble and — ideally — predict a coming crisis.

Whatever monitoring software you’re using, make sure it can support your expanded universe of keywords, phrases and other information you’ve identified. If your CFO donated thousands of dollars to a political candidate and is mentioned anywhere near that candidate’s name, you need to know before it erupts.

Make sure you deploy tools that can easily scan channels of interest: broadcast, traditional and social media, blogs, etc. In our experience helping clients with monitoring, we have yet to see a reliable, all-in-one dashboard that aggregates mentions across channels. When it comes to reporting, human validation is still critical for consolidating this information and spotting -patterns.

Your software should offer real-time reporting for both volume and channels. This is key because an abnormal spike in mentions on a platform you rarely use could signal a crisis. For example, a B2B manufacturing company suddenly trending on Facebook should raise a red flag.

Create a channel roadmap

When you understand where and how audiences are mentioning your brand, focus your plan on the relevant channels. This step is crucial as consumers become increasingly multi- and cross-channel communicators. According to a Google study, 90 percent of people who own multiple devices switch between three per day. A Salesforce study found that 34 percent of marketing budgets today are spent on channels that didn’t exist five years ago.

When responding to an issue, it’s almost always best to prioritize the channel where the crisis originated. For example, if a YouTube video shows your EVP telling crude jokes at a sales meeting, go where the conversation is and post a purpose-led YouTube video response, even if your brand doesn’t normally use that channel. Follow up with statements on your website and other owned channels.

Using the proper channel(s) drastically increases a message’s power and gives you the ability to customize your message to the medium. During a controversy, this personalization is important. Salesforce shows 52 percent of consumers and 65 percent of B2B buyers are likely to switch brands if communications aren’t personalized to them.

Marketing communications is more challenging today than ever before, but it’s also more exciting. Great corporate communicators have an opportunity to shine by helping their organizations prepare for, predict and be proactive when controversial issues emerge. By assessing risk, leading with purpose and spotting problems before they happen, PR professionals can become even more valuable to their brands and the executives who run them.


Jacqueline Kolek is Partner and Managing Director at Peppercomm.