Public power challenges crisis management

If you doubt the PR power given to publics by social media, check out Robert French’s post at PR Open Mic.  “Mommy bloggers” have reacted so strongly to an advert for a Johnson & Johnson pain relieve drug, that the company has totally capitulated.

As Robert notes, although the resulting crisis was handled within 24 hours, this is no longer fast enough in the face of online communications.  By the time the PR team has typed up a press release, the story has gone global.

Of course, organisations need to have instant warning systems of what is being said about them online and be much more savvy about how to respond when the power now lies with the public.

But I think there is something much more interesting here in relation to crisis management. 

First, organisations need to think more carefully about what will offend publics and cause an online firestorm.  In this case, there was a clear own goal – the company made the advert which a very small focus group would have branded as patronising to the target audience.

Which leads me to the second lesson – the need to harness the power of the public as advocates not enemies.  J&J has enough capital with mothers that it could have engaged with them in devising adverts they would love rather than hate.

The third point is that no-one is immune from the ire of the public today.  Last week I asked whether PR can manage trust.  J&J is a trusted brand, but when it made a mistake, any goodwill it has counts for little. 

Each of these points highlights the need to avoid creating issues in the first place – that’s not even issues management, but having a system in place within organisations to prevent the corporate foot getting anywhere near its mouth. 

So as the mouth of the organisation, the PR people need to be much closer to where the foot action is going on – whether that is marketing activities (as in this case) or production problems as Mattel and others have experienced in the past year.

But if we accept that no-one is perfect and problems will occur, what should PR do?  Can an organisation ever respond as fast as the public in such circumstances?  Indeed, how can the PR team identify which potential issues/crises will create the storm?  Or is the public power such that we should ride on the wave – is any news good news?

I believe that the traditional linear models of issues and crisis management are being stretched beyond their capabilities.  Indeed, we need to develop new approaches based on chaos and complexity theories. 

With a scent of a crisis today, the media and public are calling for blood – they want resignations and prosecutions, not simply apologies.  There is a feeding frenzy with a mob mentality, where those in the news are found guilty and the organisation is given no time to investigate or react reasonably.

So, is the sensible PR advice simply to act more and more quickly – with harsher and harsher action to satisfy the bloodlust?

Or will we all become more pragmatic and recognise the hysterical reaction to tactless adverts and inappropriate humour as being totally out of proportion?

Davis’ Iron Law of Responsibility reminds us that those who don’t use their power responsibly will lose it.  That not only applies in respect of the social responsibility of organisations.  Indeed, it serves as a warning to the public not to abuse this new found PR power.

Aren’t there many more important things in the world that demand public attention?

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.