Crisis Communication in the Post Digitalization Era

Crisis Communication at large has undergone a massive change in the last few decades especially after the introduction of new media and digital technologies. Earlier Corporate India used to have a Public Relations (PR) department which was mainly dedicated to maintaining the image of the organization. This was done using a series of steps including maintaining healthy relationships with people both at the internal level as well as with the audience or the customers at large. This department was also responsible for looking after the crisis communication in case of crisis situations. Now, in the post digitalization era, crisis may arise from Tweets, YouTube Videos or even a song, which has the power to tarnish the reputation of an organization.

There has been a notable instance in the year 2009 where a Canadian singer named Dave Carroll who had posted a song on YouTube based on “United Breaks Guitar” after his guitar was broken while flying through United Airlines. Initially the organization claimed that it was the negligence of the passenger and tried to shrug off the blame but through this song the Carroll made it a point to explain the entire incident. This musical video became popular in no time and gained massive attention of the audience which further influenced them from taking United Airlines flights for a while. The organization had to take many efforts to counter this narrative and thereby deal with this crisis situation to get back their customers, including offering a brand new Taylor guitar to Dave.

Now, this is not just one case rather with the growing popularity of online contents we get to see many such protests coming up almost every week. This is where the major challenge lies in dealing with a crisis scenario which has the potential of getting viral and thereby causing harm to the reputation of the organization.  Here, the key lies in targeting the same medium to build up a counter narrative and reach out to similar audience for managing the crisis situation.  For example, if a false narrative is spreading against an organization through twitter then the organization will have to take up initiatives to ensure that a counter narrative is spread from their end through twitter as well. So, it is not just important to target the crisis through communication but it is also important to use the same channel of communication though which the crisis has been spread.

Earlier organizations used to have draft Press Release ready for situations like any mishap during working hour or financial crisis which the organization may face in future. This used to help them to ensure that this Press Release can be readily spread if there are any such scenarios coming up in the near future. These days the definition of crisis has gone way beyond and all thanks to new media where anyone can literally post anything against an organization. Be it grievances from a customer or any counter narrative strategy used by competitive organization, crisis can come up in any form which was not even predicted before. In this case preparing a Press Release from beforehand will not be possible for any organization due to the vast diversity of crisis situations which may arise in the digital age. Hence, this is where using the same medium of communication can actually help any organization to target the same audience who has perhaps come across the information causing crisis in real time.

Strategic Communication management is playing a key role where dynamic crisis management is actually possible according to the book “How to Communicate Strategically in Corporate World”. The book states that communication has become an integral part of the strategies designed by an organization where a Chief Communications Officer often presides over the developments taking place in crisis management and other related strategic communication. Factors like personal touch and empathy are the key players in crisis communication where it is not just restricted to Press Release rather the organizations use strategies for communicating with people.

Sometimes, incidents like a flight crash can also come up as a crisis where communication becomes the major factor using which it can be managed. In one such incident during a flight crash of Air Asia, the organization had a strong hold of the situation and handled it so well that it had further lead to a positive publicity of the organization. This was possible due to the use of personal touch and empathy from the end of the organization during crisis communication. In this case the Tweets done by the spokes person Tony Fernandez who had profusely apologized for the plane crash and expressed that the organization takes over all the charges of the accident. This acted as a turning point where the audience could understand that the organization had genuine emotions towards the family members of the injured and deceased person. It became an eye opener for many other organizations that later came up with similar strategies to deal with crisis. Having empathy in communication helps to ensure that it is not the organization v/s the customers or the audience rather there is a blend between the organization and the audience. It further helps to persuade the audience ensuring that the organization is with them and not against them, making this one of the best practices in crisis communication.

Crisis communication has undergone a huge change over the course of time and now the use of only Press Release is not sufficient for crisis communication. The preference for medium of communication among the audience has changed, the lifestyle of the audience has changed and so do the nature of strategic communication but what has still remained same is the emotion. Hence, it is through personal touch and empathy that a crisis situation can be better handled and it should be reflected through crisis communication.

Prof (Dr) Mahul Brahma (PhD, DLitt) is a Professor and Dean of School of Media and Communications, Adamas University and a Fellow of School of Art, Film and Media, Bath Spa University, UK. He is an author and TEDx speaker. His latest book The Mythic Value of Luxury has won Sahityakosh Samman recently. His first short film was screened at Cannes Film Festival.