For Show 9 of the CIPR’s Social Media Panel c-suite podcast, I discussed Social Media’s impact on Crisis Communications with current CIPR President and MD of Pinch Point CommunicationsSarah PinchStephen Humphreys, Director of Communications at the UK Food Standards Agency and Andrew Vincent, Associate Partner at Instinctif Partners.

This was a very timely show given in recent weeks we’ve seen:

  • Thomas Cookbreach its duty of care’ according to the UK inquest following the 2006 tragedy when two children, aged just six and seven, died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty boiler while on holiday
  • The FBI investigate FIFA into widespread corruption within World Football’s governing body
  • Merlin Entertainment having to deal with the aftermath of the Smiler rollercoaster crash at Alton Towers which resulted in two people, who were injured in the crash, both having to have a leg amputated, which I hope we dealt with sensitively whilst discussing it.

 The general feeling from all guests was that Alton Towers had responded very well to the awful incident and that this was possibly reflected in the positive comments they had received on their Facebook page.  Andrew pointed out that they probably wouldn’t have had this reaction, had they not done the right thing and been so proactive, with Merlin CEO, Nick Varney, leading from the front, ensuring the company takes responsibility and undertaking difficult media interviews, such as the one he did with  Sky News’ Kay Burley. In fact, off the back of that interview, Burley managed to deflect the attention away from Nick Varney, who she attacked so rudely and at times, viciously, and turned the situation into a crisis of her own, with, at the time of writing, over 50,000 people had called for her to be sacked by Sky.

Andrew’s take on that particular interview was that he thinks there is a need now for journalists to sharpen and tailor their output to get shared on social media, which is actually how I came to be aware of Burley’s interview, and so it’s something we, as communicators, need to be aware of, as questioning will get more hostile as the journalists look for that exciting soundbite to get shared.

Sarah emphasised the importance of being able to say ‘we’re sorry’, and that you have to have empathy and show some of your feelings.  She believed Merlin had done brilliantly and that we’d felt for their CEO as he seemed to be having a difficult time, which she stressed was a good thing because as a consumer, she would want to see that he is upset by what had happened, although that doesn’t mean we think it’s his [or the company’s] fault, as we have no idea at this stage.

Bringing it back to role social media has to play in a crisis, Andrew highlighted that the medium is a very emotional and often emotive environment and the problem is that if you, as an organisation or a spokesperson for your organisation dealing with a crisis, don’t demonstrate sufficient empathy and emotion, then social media will do it for you.

Comparing Alton Towers to Thomas Cook, Andrew highlighted that the latter was a very sad spectacle of a company hiding behind its lawyers and demonstrating no evidence of having an ethical approach of dealing with the situation, being on the back foot and then trying to remedy the situation by making a donation to a charity completely independent of what the family concerned might have wished.

Stephen added that where social media has changed the dynamic in dealing with a crisis is in the speed of response, and gave the example that at one point, he believed FIFA were up to about 8000 comments or questions on their Twitter feed, but had provided no response or statement.

Other areas we covered in the interview included the horse meat investigation, which Stephen described as the biggest incident/crisis that he has had to deal with in his time at the FSA and the first where social media played a significant role, and the FSA’s latest campaign, their 2015 Chicken Challenge,  which has the objective of educating consumers about campylobacter in chicken, which is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK.

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About Russell Goldsmith

Russell Goldsmith is Founder of marketing consultancy, Audere Communications, and is Director of Conversis Corporate, a translation and localisation agency. He had previously spent 16 years as Digital & Social Media Director of broadcast communications specialists, markettiers4dc before leaving in April 2014 to become an independent consultant and trainer. An active member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations' Social Media Panel (CIPRSM) and a Public Relations Consultants Association trainer, he regularly presents at conferences and contributes to industry books and blogs as well as regularly judging industry awards too.

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