Content for a Crisis: Be Nimble, Be Quick

For months now, I’ve been writing about all the interesting content you could ever want to put on your web site. But what about the things you don’t necessarily want to post — but need to when faced with an organizational crisis?

What’s a crisis? Some exceptionally nervous public relations professionals might say anything that smells of negativity — a downturned stock, a not-so-wonderful change in employee benefits, or a consumer complaint. Yup, all of these situations must be handled, but you may want to opt for communications methods other than your web site. A crisis for the web site is anything that may threaten public perception about the organization and may be made worse by media attention.

Your web site provides you with the opportunity to get your message out incredibly quickly. The best examples are product recalls and airlines that post updates every few hours after a crash. Usually, there isn’t a whole lot of information coming out right after a plane goes down, but consumers, families, and even reporters are assured the company is hard at work gathering information and has made the issue its top priority.

And just as important as speed is making sure communication flows from a centralized source. Frankly, I’m not sure I need to even say this because public relations professionals worth their paychecks should establish themselves as the centralized sources of information long before all hell breaks loose in a crisis. If you’re running around, trying to wrestle command while the media is setting up Coleman stoves in your lobby, you’re over your head (unless, of course, your organization has an exclusive concession on gas canisters).

Another no-brainer but equally important is to make sure you have access to the web site 24/7. The alternative is to have a webmaster who doesn’t mind the same round-the-clock schedule public relations people are accustomed to holding.

What are the basic elements for Internet content during a crisis? Obviously, press releases, contact information, background on key people, and events and transcripts of speeches, if applicable. A question and answer page directed at consumers, media, and other key audiences is also a good idea. Take a look at the Bridgestone/Firestone tire site. Although you may not have a crisis of this organization’s proportion on your hands (the huge apology on the home page is amazing), look at how it’s provided key information to all parties (news media and consumers).

Don’t take your cues from the Ford site, which is absolutely pitiful in its recognition of the problem (no reference at all on the home page). When you finally do find information on the Explorer debacle, it’s a lot of insincerity from the organization and its CEO, Jac Nasser, the tough-guy Australian who became famous for pointing fingers. (And isn’t it interesting that Ford chose television, the least interactive of media, as its primary way of addressing the issue?)

Brickbats also go to SUPERVALU, which two weekends ago was the source of much Internet buzzing when the supermarket chain recalled ground beef products for possible E. coli contamination after at least 22 people reported becoming ill. Was there anything on the SUPERVALU web site about the recall? Nary a word, even though the recall was voluntary.

Some organizations opt to create a secondary site to handle the crisis, putting a reference to the special site on the home page. Obviously, this frees the home page for more positive news, but it also creates a site that can be easily referenced in print and other communications. Plus, interested parties don’t have to page through extraneous material to get the information they need.

Of course, all the aforementioned is critical for a big crisis, but don’t forget the power of your web site to offset ongoing issues and ensure that your message is heard. Timing is everything here. When Moody’s severely downgraded Xerox’s credit rating, The Document Company’s site had a press release (albeit a bit anemic in nature) on the home page.

Every public relations professional deals with a crisis at some point. But it’s the major ones you want to avoid. Ideally, if you’re fast and anticipate information needs, the Internet will help your organization avert a disaster of Exxon Valdez proportions altogether.

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