Crisis PR: All that glisters is not gold…*

It’s not often you get the chance to weave William Shakespeare into a post about PR so I’m taking this chance while I have it.

In ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Shakespeare teaches us that just because something is shiny, and bright looking, it doesn’t mean it’s the best choice. As Portia’s suitors must gain her hand by choosing whether the gold, silver of lead casket holds her picture. The golden casket bears the inscription: “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.” – and of course it’s the wrong one to choose.

OK I know you may be wondering where I’m going with this so bear with me. The practice of crisis communication, issue management and reputation management is not something to be taken lightly.

The online world has created an environment where crises or certainly issues, arise far more often than ever before. Furthermore, the established best practices in dealing with a crisis are well established (get the facts, get decisions makers together, provide clear and complete information, don’t speculate etc..). What’s changed is we now have to merge online and offline communication. But just because we have new communications tools does not mean that they are necessarily the best way to approach issues management. Od course we must take into account the online nature of any crisis that arises today and act accordingly.

Research points to the fact that at a time of crisis, consumers are as likely to visit the web site of the company involved, as they are a news or media web site. This is a very significant issue. If you look at one of the industries that is arguably at the forefront of major crisis management – the airline industry – they have adopted the “dark site” as the most effective means of clearly communicating at the outset of a major crisis (read an air disaster). The dark site is, at its most simple, and arguably its most effective, a single web page with the corporate logo, a clear statement on the current situation (based on the facts that are available) and contact numbers, fax numbers and e-mail for those with questions. This page replaces the front page of the site and is update as more facts become available.

So where do blogs some in? Well I think that we can agree that blogs, and specifically corporate blogs, are at their best in providing an engaging new way of reaching and building conversation with an audience – no disagreements so far I imagine. The obvious extension, but not necessarily the correct one, is that they might be good communication practice in a crisis. Not so fast. The answer is it depends.

In many situations the worst thing to do is to begin or engage in public discussion around a crisis when all the facts haven’t been uncovered. This is where speculation enters as an issue, particularly in an online world where it’s increasingly hard (read impossible) to take back what you’ve written.

Rather than just assuming that ‘hey blogs are great for communication, let’s add them to the crisis tools’, we need to think about this. In my opinion the best mass online communication tool for a crisis is the dark site. It’s clear, factual and provides those impacted with the information they urgently need. That’s good communication. What you do not need is a “dark blog” which rapidly turns into an online rubbernecking incident.

So do blogs have a role? Yes I think they can, but the key question is precedence. If you have a well established blog that, as part of its modus operandi, discusses your business, then there *may* be an opportunity to include it in your crisis communications plan. But only when it’s appropriate – typically in more minor crises.

A simple example of this was then GM pulled advertising out of the LA Times because they had issues with how they were being treated by the editorial staff. Not a major crisis I think you’ll agree, and a decision I passionatley disagreed with. But to their credit GM discussed the matter on the FastLane blog – a blog that discusses their business. Now from a personal perspective I disagreed with their decision, but I admired the fact they were willing to provide their reasons and discuss it. I still don’t agree, but I am less critical. A good example. For more serious issues it becomes more complex.

What’s for certain is that, in my opinion, the single worst thing you could do is role out a brand new blog at a time of crisis and cause more noise over an issue that more importantly needs factual information. Blogs are about building conversations, that takes time and effort. Just because they’re the shiny (read golden) new toy doesn’t mean they should be used for everything. Life is never that simple, and remember that Portia’s picture was in the boring old lead casket which bore the inscription: “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath” – a euphenism for honesty perhaps.


  • If you are interested in some very interesting discussion around crisis communication and where blogs might fit I highly recommend Shel Holtz’s interview with Gerard Baron at the always excellent For Immediate Release.
  • This post was inspired by the blogging article in the most recent issue of the Economist, which is only notable for the fact that the Economist is covering blogs and secondly that one of the people interviewed said “dark blogs” were a great idea… “oh yes thank you I’ll have the nice shiny gold casket please”. Steve should know better.
  • *Thanks to Neil MacLean who was the Antonio to my Bassanio by pointing out my glitters/glisters error. I could try and (ahem) say I was trying to make it more contemporary, but I’d be lying… I just hope my old English teacher Mr. Power isn’t reading this. He wouldn’t be impressed.