real-time response

Slow-Walking a Fast-Breaking Crisis

In the fable, the tortoise wins the race by slow, steady movement. In real life, slow-walking a crisis response is doomed to lose the race of telling your story.

In the fable, the tortoise wins the race by slow, steady movement. In real life, slow-walking a crisis response is doomed to lose the race of telling your story.

In the fable, the hare, after a fast start, loses the race to the slow-moving, but steady tortoise. In the real word of crisis response, the tortoise almost never wins.

We live in a real-time world where crises can erupt or be inflamed by an iPhone video. Trying to respond by telegraph just doesn't cut it. If you can't keep up, reporters will look for and find news sources who will, with or without all the facts.

Smart crisis response involves gathering your facts, crafting your message and telling your story. A slow-walking response to a fast-breaking crisis can bury your facts, message and storytelling in the blur. Worse yet, a slow-moving response can become another trigger that propels news velocity.

Large organizations that haven't anticipated cruising in the crisis fast lane struggle to approve key statements or proactive steps. Legal considerations often play an outsized role in bogging down a crisis response that can play a significant role in the court of public opinion.

Complex corporate structures and attorneys, however, don't have to be obstacles, and they shouldn't be excuses. The solution requires open-eyed crisis preparation, starting with an acknowledgement that a crisis can and probably will happen and the response must be in the same time zone.

Crisis preparation should include specific ways to speed fact-finding, conduct legal reviews and approve actions and statements. One or more officials must be identified to take the lead in the event of a crisis and undergo stress-testing before they show up in front of microphones.

Stress testing and incident exercises based on likely crisis scenarios go well beyond basic media training. They teach how to stay cool while walking on hot media coals, often with only shreds of verified information and sometimes after being ambushed by reporters. Being out front on a cascading crisis requires mental quickness that eclipses the sedentary pace of sitting down for a one-on-one media interview or chatting up financial analysts.

Ordinary question-and-answer prep doesn't prepare a spokesperson for answering a question in the form of a video shot by an eye-witness to the crisis event.

Many corporate leaders don't want to be embarrassed by "failing" their stress tests with their top lieutenants looking on. But failure in this kind of media training is the first step toward success. Moreover, it is much better to fail in front of a few people you know than to fall flat in front of a bank of reporters.

If the thought arises that a slow-walked response could allow time to pass so the crisis goes away, think again. There are too many media incentives and too many communications channels for any crisis of note to disappear.

You wouldn't saunter to safety in the face of a swelling wave ready to pound the beach. You shouldn't saunter on crisis response, either.

Responding in Real-Time

It took four minutes for daredevil Felix Baumgartner to hurtle 129,000 miles from the edge of space to earth. It can take far less time for a video to go viral over the worldwide web.

United Airlines learned that speed lesson the hard way.

On a one-stop flight from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Omaha, Nebraska, Canadian musician and songwriter Dave Carroll watched his $3,500 Taylor guitar get tossed ungently by baggage-handlers at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. 

When he discovered the neck of his guitar was fractured, Carroll appealed to United ground crew employees, whom he said reacted indifferently. He subsequently filed a claim, which United rejected, saying he failed to file it with 24 hours after the guitar was broken.

After nine fruitless months of negotiations, Carroll tried a different consumer complaint desk. He wrote a protest song, which he and his band, Sons of Maxwell, videotaped and placed on YouTube under the title, "United Breaks Guitars."

Posted July 6, 2009, the protest video immediately attracted 150,000 views. Three days later, there were 5 million views. People are still watching the amusing video that pillories United Airlines, with more than 12.5 million views as of this week. Now Carroll has written a book called "United Breaks Guitars."

It took one day after the video was posted for United to contact Carroll and offer a settlement. But the public relations nightmare was already unleashed. The only solace for United is its use of the video in its personnel training.

David Meerman Scott, author of "Real Time Marketing and PR," uses the United incident and Carroll video as an example of how important speed is in a response. Scott says businesses that know how to use time and urgency can gain competitive advantages.

United's lethargic on-the-ground and consumer complaint responses sharply contrasted with the quick, instinctive response by Bob Taylor, owner of Taylor Guitars. Showing sympathy for Carroll's plight and displaying market savvy, Taylor supplied Carroll with the guitars he needed to make the protest video. 

Taylor went on to produce a homemade video, which he posted on YouTube, describing TSA rules that allow guitars in cases to be carried on board airplanes. He included the practical suggestion of printing out the rules to show airline attendants when boarding.

Scott says Taylor employed "real-time" marketing.