Managing a Crisis in the Age of the Smartphone

By Laura Kern, APR for the FPRA Annual Conference Blog

Police RiotSusan Vernon-Devlin, Director of Public Relations Service at Massey Communications, is a real world Olivia Pope (for those “Scandal” fans). She has been through crises in the age of the smartphone from the Trayvon Martin shooting in Sanford, Fla. to Maryville, Mo., where two young girls were sexually assaulted. Her hour-long session “I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me: Managing a Crisis in the Age of the Smartphone” at Florida Public Relations Association‘s Annual Conference covered everything a public relations practitioner needs to know to create a crisis communications plan, handling and recovering from the crisis, along with a few personal case studies from Susan’s experience. (This blogger took five pages of notes and will share the best tidbits in this short blog.)

Crises can happen in a split second with people waiting to catch a fault on their smartphones and upload it to YouTube, Facebook, Vine, etc. These take-a-ways will help your organization ‘handle it’.

  • The No. 1 rule of crisis communications: Always have a plan. After we go to a crisis session, how many of us actually go back to our offices and take the time write down an organization-wide crisis plan? As Susan said, “It’s not if you will have a crisis, it’s when. Your crisis is coming.” It’s time!
  • Act quickly and rationally. Have what you need to execute your plan, including the plan, your tools (smartphone, tablets, WiFi hotspots, etc.) and people. If you don’t have what you need, gather outside resources, even if that means borrowing people for another organization.
  • Is it over yet? How does your organization, respectfully, get back to normal after a crisis and pick up the pieces? First, you may think the crisis ends when the media storm dies, however remember someone is still hurting from the incident. Return to normal, slowly. Next step, immediately learn from any mistakes you made or hiccups in your plan and edit the crisis plan.
  • Perception is reality. Your job is to make sure that the public, whose perception may be incorrect, understands the facts. From messaging to timely responses, you must mitigate the damage for your organization as best as you can.
  • Arm yourself with smart equipment. Don’t bet on your ancient laptop or BlackBerry working to get you through a crisis. Create a crisis team with smart, trained people who know what they’re doing, designate a spokesperson who’s comfortable with the media, and get some techies on your team who can handle website updates, social media postings and non-functioning systems for you much quicker than you can.
  • Use your smartphone. Your crisis may have started on someone’s smartphone, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use yours to get your organization out of it. Arm your smartphone now to be prepared for anything:
    • Download social media apps, from Facebook to Vine, YouTube to Twitter.
    • Download news feed apps, from CNN to your local paper’s mobile site and BBC to BuzzFeed.
    • Add mobile TV apps from national to international stations.
    • Program phone numbers into your phone so you have contact info for the people you’ll need in a moment’s notice when your crisis happens.
  • Know when you’re outgunned. Don’t have a team or technology strong enough to support you in a crisis? Admit it and get help. Update your resources, solicit outside help, borrow people and make sure ‘its handled’.

Do’s and don’ts of crisis communications

  • Identify the crisis communications team before the incident
  • Identify your spokesperson who is comfortable with media
  • Train your spokesperson
  • Establish notification systems
  • Identify stakeholders who have your organization’s best interest at heart, and not looking for their 15 minutes of fame.
  • Don’t act like a fortress
  • Don’t wait to formulate messages. Have some in the can, ready to go.
  • Don’t react without checking the facts
  • Don’t complicate the message
  • Don’t think you will come away unscathed. Remember someone got hurt, and people will remember that.

Looking for a great crisis communications plans to lean on when building yours? Susan says there are many online, and off the top of her head Duke University, UCLA and Pfizer have great plans you can reference.