Crisis Blogs – Plan Them Well

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Don’t think you can start a blog when the crisis hits you. Even though Oliver S. Schmidt, Managing Partner of C4CS, has “…yet to walk into a crisis situation that wouldn’t have the client partner benefit from utilizing blogs”.

He also tells me in this interview that “…companies should become familiar with blogging during the pre crisis phase”.

When I wrote about crisis blogs in January, I was wrong. Not necessarily in my conclusion that you should use them cautiously – I think Oliver agrees to that – but I assumed that there wasn’t much experience from crisis blogs yet. Well, there is.

My post led to this interview. Read it if you’re the least interested in crisis communications and blogs. C4CS is a consultancy specializing in strategic communication and crisis management. If you want to know more about Oliver’s view on crisis communications in general, you find it at the Disaster Resource Guide.

Some highlights from what you find below:

    Effective internal crisis communication is an area that, unfortunately, is still neglected by a lot of companies.
    …blogs have worked well with any mix of tools we decided to go with provided the necessary coordination occured.
    …support employee blogs as long as there are formal blogging and blog disclaimer policies and sufficient blog monitoring and analysis in place.
    …designate and train a primary blogger and at least one backup. In a crisis these individuals must be in close contact with senior management…
    Identifying the right person is crucial.

What types of crisis situations have you used blogs in?

We have been advising client partners regarding Internet and intranet-based crisis blogs for about three years. Situations have included crisis response and recovery during and following natural disasters, clashes with anti corporate activists, financial and legal troubles, executive illness, industrial and transportation accidents, downsizing, and product recalls.

Ideally companies should become familiar with blogging during the pre crisis phase. However, when we are retained to assist with crisis preparedness planning, we don’t advocate the immediate launch of a corporate blog. Instead we recommend studying the blogging phenomenon and determining how blogs can help accomplish clearly defined communication objectives.

C4CS guides the client partner through that process and provides assistance in establishing a network of friendly bloggers that turns into a valuable asset in a crisis. But before we formally include a blog in the crisis communication strategy, the client partner has to agree that this move is going to result in more effective communication. Depending on the crisis situation, we may decide to collaborate with and utilize Internet-based blogs including picture and video blogs, executive blogs and employee blogs, start a crisis blog from scratch, temporarily convert an established intranet-based blog into a crisis blog, or publish a ‘stealth blog’.

Please describe a ‘stealth blog’.

‘Stealth blogs’ are Internet and intranet-based blogs that we develop with the individual client partner during the pre crisis phase. The goal is to have the technical requirements and the necessary processes and responsibilities in place so that the blog can immediately go live upon the occurrence of a crisis. This concept grew out of our work with Internet and intranet stealth or ‘dark sites’, which began in the 1990s.

What do blogs deliver for the external crisis communication?

If done correctly, corporate blogging in a crisis can significantly enhance communication with external and internal stakeholders. But I always caution management that despite their dramatically increased popularity, blogs are just one of many traditional and online tools that should be considered. In the end the right mix of communication tools and using the blog wisely within that mix are vital to responding to a crisis successfully. If management doesn’t heed that advice, blogging in times of crisis can easily backfire because blogs are all about the open exchange of subjective opinions, and corporate blogging therefore translates into relinquishing communication control.

On the plus side blogs are an excellent listening tool that allows companies to establish direct rapport with stakeholders who are eager to express how they perceive company positions and deeds. Our client partners regularly pick up critical information through automated Internet and intranet monitoring, which includes the systematic monitoring of a quickly growing number of relevant blogs.

In addition, blogs can easily be updated during a crisis, they enable instant two-way communication with stakeholders around the globe, and they create a public record of opinions and related facts that helps minimize rumors and speculation. As the number of bloggers continues to increase, more and more stakeholders will come to appreciate and eventually expect corporate blogging in good times and in times of crisis.

And what do blogs deliver for the internal crisis communication?

Effective internal crisis communication is an area that, unfortunately, is still neglected by a lot of companies. I have written about the subject matter and made numerous presentations, which among other aspects covered available communication tools. One of the tools I discuss is of course blogging.

The benefits of using blogs in times of crisis are largely the same for internal as they are for external crisis communication. However, we were at first surprised when we saw how many employees utilized intranet-based blogs and embraced the concept even if intranet-based message boards had been available for some time. Our post crisis evaluation then revealed that employees appreciated being listened to by management. And by utilizing blogs management on the other hand had found a way to better identify and address issues raised by employees.

Several client partners we helped in a crisis situation actually decided to keep blogs that were started in response to a crisis online indefinitely. And most of those blogs have since become an important internal communication tool which the client partners routinely use to motivate employees and seek their input.

At the same time we encourage our client partners to support employee blogs as long as there are formal blogging and blog disclaimer policies and sufficient blog monitoring in place. The blogging policy defines unacceptable blog content and to what extend employees are permitted to tend to their blogs while at work. Unfortunately, a lot of companies have yet to recognize that a blogging policy is as important as their established policies regarding e-mail and Internet use. The mandatory blog disclaimer makes it clear that employee blog content doesn’t mirror company positions. And the blog monitoring is done to ensure compliance with the policies and to systematically identify and analyse information that may help the company in a crisis situation and beyond.

In what way do you coordinate blogs with other communication tools? Is there any mix of tools with blogs involved that you find especially effective in a crisis situation?

The bottom line is, blogging alone is not going to be sufficient in a crisis. We educate our client partners concerning the benefits of blogs and always carefully consider other crisis communication tools which hopefully have been developed and repeatedly tested during the pre crisis phase. Based on our ongoing assessment of stakeholder communication needs, available resources and crisis communication tools that have been successfully employed by the client partner in the past, we then select the traditional and online communication tools that will be used to effectively respond to the current crisis.

As for the efficacy of certain combinations of crisis communication tools, let me just say that blogs have worked well with any mix of tools we decided to go with provided the necessary coordination occured. No internal crisis blog is for instance going to help if crucial information related to the crisis is repeatedly provided to and appearing in the news media before that information is communicated internally through the blog. And you surely also get counterproductive results if the messages communicated via blogs are untrue or inconsistent with messages delivered through other channels.

Is it necessary – or advantageous – to have an established blog before a crisis hits?

It is often advantageous and will likely be an even bigger plus once blogs have become more accepted as a communications tool. As a consultant, I consider the mere existence of a corporate blog good news because it shows that the company has included blogging in its communication strategy and that there is actual blogging experience. And the better the blog’s quantitative and qualitative reach, the more stakeholders and opinion leaders will likely turn to it if the company is going through a crisis. Provided the blog is maintained in a professional manner that can make a big difference in whether on not the company emerges from the crisis intact.

What does it take to publish a crisis blog?

That’s a good question because it points to the importance of effective crisis communication planning. As I mentioned when I explained what ‘stealth blogs’ are, it is necessary to take care of the technical end, and appropriate procedures and responsilibilities for instance regarding fact checking also need to be established long before a crisis happens. On top of that policies concerning executive and employee blogging, blog disclaimers, automated blog monitoring and systematic blog analysis and categorization should be in place. And last but not least especially the designated crisis bloggers should at least have a basic understanding of the blogosphere.

We also advise our client partners to designate and train a primary blogger and at least one backup. In a crisis these individuals must be in close contact with senior managment and able to perform their blog related tasks without interruption. There may be a large number of posts and a lot of speculation to deal with, but before content representing the company goes online, it must be approved by communications, legal, and other relevant functions.

And who’s the blogger? Who can be trusted to blog in a difficult situation?

Identifying the right person is crucial. We advise our client partners to appoint people who have blogging experience, preferrably running a personal blog. However, someone who contributes to blogs or routinely reads posts may also be a good choice. Aside from blogging experience we recommend going with someone who is well connected within the organization, who has crisis management and communication experience and will, if necessary, be able to focus exclusively on the blogging during a crisis.

Are there any crisis situations in which you wouldn’t recommend blogs at all?

In the U.S., where we had an estimated (pdf) 8 million blogs with a readership of 32 million Internet users at the end of 2004, I have yet to walk into a crisis situation that wouldn’t have the client partner benefit from utilizing blogs. But for instance due to time constraints and limited client partner resources we have at times not recommended blogging as part of the crisis communication strategy although it would have helped. And if nobody in the company has blogging experience and ‘stealth blogs’ haven’t been developed as part of the pre crisis planning, staying away from using blogs may at least in some cases be the better option.

Things are different with our client partners in Europe and Asia because blogging is not as well known in those markets, and consequently readership numbers are significantly below what I just cited for the U.S. But in a few cases we have successfully used crisis blogs, and I think a lot more will be launched on a global scale in the not too distant future.

Fredrik Wacka is the author and founder of the popular CorporateBlogging.Info blog which is a guide to business and corporate blogging.

Visit Fredrik Wacka’s blog: CorporateBlogging.Info.

Crisis Blogs – Plan Them Well
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