Matt Conroy
Matt Conroy

The incremental condensing of the news cycle that’s taken place over the last 30 years has changed the way organizations think about crisis communications. Starting with the rise of 24-hour cable news in the 1990s, then spurred on by the rapid expansion of the Internet, the advent of electronic media platforms and finally the proliferation of social media, the “half-life” of a standard corporate crisis has progressively shrunk. Situations that once might have taken days—if not weeks—to build, simmer and boil over might now explode and quickly diminish in the space of several hours.

The Trump era might be thought of as the ultimate phase in this evolution. As the news media have scrambled to keep up with the Tweeter-in-Chief, financial, personal and political crises that might have doomed a more reticent president have fizzled out like wet firecrackers. This is due, in part, to the inability of the news media to focus on any one thing for too long, but Trump has understood like no politician before him that in the social media age “crisis fatigue” can set in, meaning that few scandals are long-lasting.

Managing crises in an age when print media was still king was often more of a marathon than a sprint. Investigative stories tended to evolve more slowly but could also last far longer, extending for days or weeks with intense focus from newsrooms. Accordingly, it was much harder to just turn the page. The default crisis communications strategy that grew out of the print era was to mobilize all available resources, apologize, quickly fire/discipline those responsible and tell everyone what you were going to do to ensure it would never happen again.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '21 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
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Today, much of this standard crisis playbook still holds true, especially for far-reaching reputational emergencies or cases of serious financial malfeasance. But with so many channels for disseminating information and such a limitless well of outrage on all sides of the ideological spectrum, what might once have passed without notice is today far likelier to balloon quickly on social platforms, migrate to second tier electronic outlets, and potentially make their way into mainstream regional or national media. On the other hand, the garden variety crisis may be prone to dying a quicker death as the crowd moves on to the next trending topic.

The breathtaking speed at which a crisis can metastasize has resulted in a tendency for corporate communications departments to maintain a near permanent state of hyper-vigilance. Breaking news alerts, slick social monitoring tools, ready-made crisis protocols and easily adaptable standby statements are ubiquitous parts of today’s crisis communications toolkit, enabling companies to leap into action quickly before things spiral and they appear unresponsive or uncaring.

But having the tools to respond quickly doesn’t mean that a quick response—or even any response—is necessarily the best course of action in a crisis. Crisis situations come in all stripes, from an ill-advised tweet to an executive resignation to job cuts, and in the social media era they can disappear as quickly as they surface. So, what guidelines should leaders keep in mind when deciding when and how to respond?

Keep it in perspective

Investing in crisis response training and capabilities is wise but avoid overreacting. Not every situation requires a full-frontal response. There’s a marked difference between a financial scandal that can send shares tumbling and a dissatisfied customer making your life difficult on Twitter. Sometimes responding to information only serves to amplify it, so calibrate your response and understand the potential business, employee and social impact before deciding to act.

Correct the record

False or misleading information from reputable media sources can spread quickly, resulting in a snowball effect that can damage your brand and reputation if left unaddressed. But there’s a vast difference between a keyboard warrior with a small following stoking outrage on Twitter and an exposé by an investigative reporter at the Wall Street Journal. When needed, corrections should be negotiated on a one-to-one basis with reporters and editors, not hashed out in the open by executives on social platforms, which may only serve to burn bridges.

Maintain consistency

Gather the facts before responding. In a crisis, it is better to be right than to be fast, though speed and accuracy are both important. And when you do respond, make sure your response is consistent across all of your platforms, including your corporate website and social channels, and that it’s accurately reflected in any talking points your spokespeople may be using.

Perhaps we’ll see less disinformation and a somewhat less frantic media environment in the post-Trump era, but it’s hard to imagine the genie being put back in the bottle. The ever-shrinking news cycle can be a double-edged sword, with crises tending to cut quickly, but not always deeply. Having a scalable crisis plan handy and maintaining perspective are the keys to calibrating the right response.


Matt Conroy is Senior Vice President at Stanton PR and Marketing.