Thursday, February 19, 2009

Case Study: Quick, Social & Successful Crisis Communications

If you want a great example of crisis communications (social media, regular media or otherwise) take a look at Peter Shankman's response to the technical glitch that caused a teleconference with 2,000 clients to go over the cliff this week.

Shankman is a Public Relations/Social Media expert who has one of the most popular services for PR folks anywhere. It's called HARO or Help a Reporter Out. HARO comes out three times a day during the work week with queries from journalists. The email goes to more than 50,000 PR folks worldwide. The queries come from all media from the New York Times down to small specialty trade publications. The service is free.

Shankman knows that those 50,000 PR people want reporters to write stories that aren't necessarily on the journalist's agenda. So he put together a conference call on how to pitch reporters. He had capacity for 2,000 dial-ins, but marketed it for $50 for “as many people as you can cram around a phone." It's a good deal.

Until it went horribly awry.

Apparently the call quality was poor. Think about the image of thousands of PR folks crammed into conference rooms across the country saying "what the hell?" It's difficult to find out how to pitch journalists when you can't hear the journalists.

Shankman communicates relentlessly via Twitter, sending short notes out to the more than 27,000 people who follow him on the micro-blogging service (me included). His response to the call failure started at 1:08 pm Eastern time. The call had started at 1:00 p.m.

The audio stream is being reset, according to @fawnkey.Please stand by. 11:08 AM Feb 18th

He kept communicating.

I'm truly sorry for the quality of the c call, and I know CCU is working to fix it. I truly apologize. @fawnkey is working on it. #HARO 11:17 AM Feb 18th

The tweet above is important because it expanded the audience. The first tweet would have been received by anyone who follows Shankman, but not necessarily everyone on the call. When he inserted the hashtag #HARO into the post, anyone who was searching for that hashtag (as they had been instructed to do at the beginning of the call) could see his comment. Click here for a good explanation of hashtags.

The technical problems proved fatal to the call. So now Shankman has at least 2,000 folks who have paid to hear how best to get their stories into the press who are just waiting. His next three tweets came in quick succession:

I'm not sure what to say. This has never happened b4. I'm truly, truly sorry. We will obviously redo this ASAP. I'm just so very sorry. ... 11:27 AM Feb 18th

#HARO. Again - My apologies - This will not happen again. I'm so very sorry. I'm so very sorry. 11:28 AM Feb 18th

I'm working on a reschedule of the call as we speak. I will make this right. #HARO 11:32 AM Feb 18th

Shankman’s promise to “make this right” is outstanding. An old friend of mine used to say that people will forgive you for not being perfect. What they won’t forgive you for is not wanting to be perfect. You could tell that it bothered him that this didn’t go well. It mattered to Shankman that he deliver on his promise.

Here’s what people were told about what went wrong:

RT @FawnKey::#HARO call. A "perfect storm" of events caused probs. We are VERY, sorry this happened. Don't blame @skydiver. It was us.

It was no 1's fault. S#it happens. We're working the problem and finding the solution. We'll have a new call ASAP. #HARO 12:09 PM Feb 18th

I loathe the phrase “perfect storm” to describe something that goes wrong. People use it to avoid blaming anyone. Too often people use "perfect storm" when there is clearly someone to blame…the CEO for making a bad decision…or the bankers who loaned money to people who couldn’t afford it.

In this case, it seems appropriate though, because technology often fails in unpredictable, unexpected ways. But really, isn't there an intern that can be blamed?

By 3:24 pm, the call had been rescheduled and Shankman had posted a note to his blog with an explanation and apology.

Shankman's Blog Response

This response to crisis succeeded because of four critical elements.

Focus on the audience most impacted
He reached out to the people on the conference call. In most organizational crises, there are a lot of audiences in play, but usually only one or two that are directly impacted. Shankman focused his communications on the right audience. The rest of us (I wasn't on the call) make judgments based on how the company (Shankman, in this case) responds to the key audience.

Communicate quickly and continuously
The first response came within minutes of trouble and the communications continued until the rescheduled call was successfully completed. Everyone knew what was going on every step of the way. The key audience always got information directly from the most credible source.


Apologizing for an adverse event is a critical element of a successful response, yet this is often the hardest thing for an executive or an organization to offer. Without it, the audience you are trying to reach probably won’t listen to your explanation of what went wrong.

Make amends

Shankman delivered on his promise to "make this right. People got exactly what they paid for, which was a conference call with journalists on how to pitch stories."

It makes me wonder how we’d feel if we had heard from anyone in the banking industry the way we heard from Shankman.

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