Alex StantonAlex Stanton

There’s never a dull news day for those who track Elon Musk’s business activities and management of Twitter. Whatever your opinion on Musk, the media are reporting on his every move for better or worse. There’s no denying he moves boldly and publicly, and any one of his recent controversies is packed with important learnings and reminders for communicators.

Here are seven lessons that can be applied to crisis communications situations—beyond “don’t make your own problems”—and which can inform overall planning and management in challenging media environments:

Follow the clicks

In today’s challenged economic environment for media platforms, there’s a tug-of-war that guides newsroom judgment—the push-pull between reader traffic and journalistic mission. While journalists everywhere are interested in telling the best stories and reporting on hard news, often reader clicks have a major influence on what gets covered, how thoroughly and for how long. What we’ve learned from the Twitter communications imbroglio is that when your actions or inactions create a persistent story, you shouldn’t be surprised when it becomes your living reality. Those stories not only don’t go away but are also often amplified as reporters and editors continue searching for ways to advance the story to compete with others on the same trail and fill their outlet’s appetite for more clicks.

Pacing matters

After your initial response to a controversy, it’s smart to set and regularly revisit guideposts around pacing of response. Are you helped by responding immediately to each new development or line of media inquiry, or are you letting time be your friend? Stories roll out and evolve, often being told over several iterations across news cycles. By pacing your responses, you can adjust your messaging according to what’s known as opposed to what’s speculated. This approach can allow an organization to present more thoughtful responses when it makes sense to do so—or to wait it out and let the story evolve away from their doorstep or fade away entirely.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '23 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
(view PDF version)

Set the right tone when ownership changes

It’s reasonable to expect company ownership changes and the intentions of the new owners to be met with a certain amount of scrutiny and cynicism, even in smaller companies with less visible CEOs. How you address this reality at the time of announcement and in the first few weeks that follow will set the tone and provide a good compass reading for what to expect moving forward. Companies are well-served by explaining why changes are happening, what changes can be expected and when, and providing a rationale. Transparent communication—within reason—is helpful to establishing trust with employees. And filling the communications pipeline—even when there is nothing earth-shaking to share—helps tamp down the rumor mill and get team members re-focused on their daily work.

Be ready to respond to the biggest reputation risks

Most leaders of companies and organizations can rattle off a list of their most significant reputational risks, and yet adequate preparation is often not done to respond to those risks when events cause them to spill into public view. It is essential to identify and have at hand draft responses to your five biggest reputational risks so that you avoid improvising while you’re under the gun. Response time and credibility are enhanced during a crisis when you are working from pre-approved approaches that can be quickly updated and altered to fit the evolving situation.

Work the CEO’s support network

Communicators are well-advised to connect with the CEO whisperers who can help define and moderate their company leader’s natural instincts. These are the people—often outside the company—that the CEO will consult, or who will reach out to him or her, when times get tough. They can be very helpful in supporting sensible communications strategies, and in discouraging rogue behaviors.

A personal touch matters

Adopting a personal and multi-constituent approach to communications outside of the town square can be very helpful in managing crisis situations. The tendency can be to turn inwards especially while firefighting on media inquiries and social channel chatter. But you can’t lose sight of the positive impact that direct communication from company leaders—and wherever possible personal communication—can have on customers, business partners, employees and other key stakeholders. This is effective even when the decision-makers and influencers are reading persistent negative coverage in the media and social feeds.

Don’t make assumptions about your allies

Crisis preparation must include pre-recruiting third-party allies who can help support your point of view and past actions around key issues. It’s important to reach out to these independent influencers and make them feel informed and knowledgeable about the issues at hand as the situation evolves. Some may even be cultivated as advocates and supportive voices in the media. It’s likewise a mistake to assume that employees will be your loyal friends when a controversy erupts—this has certainly not proven to be the case at Twitter. If they haven’t been communicated with effectively and/or feel they aren’t being listened to, current and former employees can be a potent source of bad news for the media and other stakeholders.

Examining or revisiting these seven lessons, with a fresh eye, of course, should prove helpful as communicators manage through the crisis or media controversies they will inevitably face in 2023.


Alex Stanton is CEO of Stanton, a communications firm with offices in New York and the San Francisco Bay Area. He can be reached at [email protected].