When I first starting working in communications in 2005, crisis communications plans looked very different to how they look today.
For a start, there was a big focus on media relations, and how they could help you get your messages across – through interviews, regular statements, etc.
And, of course, we had the magical ‘golden hour’. The golden hour was essentially the time that you had from the start of a crisis unfolding to formulate and agree your handling plan, before people started to make their own assumptions about what was happening, or you were lambasted for not saying or doing anything.
Fast forward to 2017, and not only do I feel much older than I did in 2005, but those crisis communications plans look pretty different too. And, while the media still play an important role in a crisis, that golden hour has pretty much disappeared.
These days, with so many people plugged into social media day and night, often the first way an organisation finds out that a crisis or issue is brewing is through Twitter or Facebook (incidentally, this is one of the main reasons why I think organisations should hand overall responsibility for social media to their communications practitioners, but there’s probably another blog in that).
Last month, at about 6.30pm one Friday evening (it’s always a Friday), we started to see some direct messages and mentions on the @sheffhallamuni Twitter account, complaining that adverts for a postgraduate open day featuring both Sheffield Hallam and the University of Sheffield were appearing on the Breitbart website. If you don’t know Breitbart, it’s a fairly ‘extreme’ news website – and I use the term ‘news’ very loosely indeed. In fact, much of its content is just plain offensive.
Both us and the small team running the @sheffielduni account moved quickly to agree a joint handling line that we could use on Twitter as a statement and in replies to specific mentions or questions. We did this simply by DMing each other straight away (I was getting a takeaway at the time. In 2005 it’s unlikely I would have been able to deal with an unfolding incident from the reception area of the Golden Dragon).
As we posted replies, explaining that we’d be contacting our advertising partner to ensure they updated their list of websites to ban, the advertiser very helpfully stepped in to say they had removed Breitbart immediately from their list (once again, there’s probably another blog post on the perils of programmatic advertising, but that’s for another day – and in fact, Damian Tambini from LSE has already done so far more articulately than I ever could as part of a research project into how advertising is fuelling fake news).
This also prompted some positive responses from some of the people who had initially made their feelings heard.
Now, while this wasn’t necessarily a major crisis, it had the potential to create some uncomfortable reputational damage if we had failed to act quickly. The lessons here are pretty clear: try and set up a system in which you have people in place to check social media out of hours; and it helps to have a good working relationship with partner organisations’ comms teams – it’s likely you’ll need to work with them at some point.
Spring roll anyone?
Ally Mogg, head of news and PR