Part 1: Debunking the Unpredictability of Social Media and the Digital Landscape
Last week I was in Brussels keynoting at NATO’s Public Diplomacy Forum. I certainly learnt a lot, but as a speaker and a consultant, I got the opportunity to teach a lot as well. Social media’s impact on crisis doesn’t just exist for organizational crises or emergencies such as natural disasters. World leaders are currently fighting in a war of ideas where social media plays a threatening role. ISIS, in particular, is a brilliant manipulator and chooses social media and the digital landscape as one of their weapons of choice. It’s a petrifying and severe challenge for those with the task of countering propaganda and keeping our world a safe place.
My goal with my keynote was three-fold:
- To help NATO, other government agencies, NGOs, diplomats, ambassadors and private firms make this digital landscape more predictable and therefore enabling them to leave themselves less exposed and less vulnerable;
- To provide delegates with the insight, tools and knowledge to proactively position their organization as a voice of credibility and leadership, now, in order to fight and win on the social media front; and
- To challenge delegates to embark upon the day before them with the goal of seeking opportunities to leverage the advantages that this digital landscape provides, rather than simply looking for ways to react or respond in a crisis.
These three things make for a great keynote presentation because they’re the heart of crisis communications in this 21st century. No matter what organization you work for, these three things absolutely apply to you and are critical for your crisis management success (which is something I explore in much more detail in my presentations, so if you’re interested in hiring me to speak at your next event, click here to learn more.)
Over the next few posts, I’m going to delve deeper into each of these three things that, combined, reveal the secret to successful crisis management in this digital era. Today, let’s begin with the first of the three…
Making the digital landscape more predictable
In my experience working with a wide range of organizations and executives, one of the biggest challenges leaders and many organizations face, is overcoming the unpredictability of this digital landscape. The fact that we’re never quite sure when something may or may not go viral against us in a negative way makes us feel as though we’re not in control, it makes us feel vulnerable and exposed, and it’s one of the biggest setbacks resulting in a lack of proactive action that needs to take place.
In fact, believe it or not, it’s that non-existent (or limited) proactive action that leaves you increasingly vulnerable. It’s a vicious cycle that results in organizations and leaders wishing this digital landscape didn’t have such a prominent role in crisis and communications today.
But what if I were to tell you that there’s a method behind this unpredictability? That there’s a way to understand this digital landscape and what and how things go viral, in order to make this landscape more predictable and, therefore, leave you less vulnerable?
What makes something go viral?
Over the last few years, a lot of change has occurred. The landscape for crisis communications has changed and, with it, the rules for crisis communications have changed. Mobile technology continues to evolve and change, leaving us exposed to new and growing risks, from hacks and data breaches to communication challenges. However, through all of this change, it’s extremely important to remember that one key thing has and will remain the same: human behavior.
Human behavior is at the heart of this digital landscape. It’s the engine that drives it. So if we understand this, then we can understand what it is that prompts someone to click “share” (because in essence, that’s what something going viral is – I click share, you click share, the people we share it with click share and the thing goes viral).
Note: It’s important to note that no one can ever 100% guarantee when something will or will not go viral. However, the following three things are at the heart of all viral content and, by understanding them, you can enable your team to make this digital landscape more predictable, leaving you less vulnerable.
There are three things that every piece of viral content contains, the first two being the most important:
- Emotional impact
- A short and catchy headline
For example: If you watch or read something that touches you on a profoundly emotional level, be it joy, be it fear, be it rage – and – if by sharing it you feel as though the person or the people with whom you share it will relate to your emotion, you’re going to click share.
Emotional impact, relatability and a short and catchy headline. These three things are at the heart of every single piece of viral content that has ever had an impact. From United Breaks Guitars to #JeSuisCharlie. (Tweet this now!)
Note: Though a short and catchy headline certainly helps something go viral, it is not enough to make something go viral on its own. The content attached to that short and catchy headline needs to have that emotional impact and relatability factor.
Let’s look at “Je Suis Charlie” for a second
It was said that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was meant to bring France to its knees and instead, it brought the world to their feet. Why? What was it about this attack that the people who orchestrated it failed to understand about our society?
The attack on Charlie Hebdo didn’t happen in a third world country. It didn’t happen in a country grieved by war where these sorts of occurrences, unfortunately, happen on a regular basis. The attack on Charlie Hebdo happened to our neighbor. It happened in our backyard. And, not only did it happen in our backyard, but it threatened our freedom of press. This was highly emotionally impactful to the western and first world.
Then, #JeSuisCharlie was born. Je suis Charlie. I am Charlie. This short and catchy headline captured what the world was feeling in three words that connected each of us to one another. It doesn’t get more relatable than bringing “I” – you, me, the world – into it.
The power of emotional impact and relatability
The power of emotion and relatability cannot be ignored or forgotten. It’s actually one of the secrets to fighting and winning in this war of ideas (and I’ll elaborate on this in my next posts). It’s also what you need to understand and remember when assessing your risk on the digital front. If you can train your frontline and communicators to understand human behavior and how it impacts and drives this digital landscape, then you have the key to assessing potential risk before any type of communications or messaging is made public, from a tweet or retweet to a press release or public statement.
How to assess the risk of your communications
How do you do this? By remembering the power of emotion and relatability and taking a few seconds before every single communication goes live to ask yourself:
- How is this going to relate to our audience / our stakeholders?
- What is the emotional connection here? / How is this going to impact them on an emotional level?
- How can this potentially be misconstrued or misinterpreted?
- What’s the worst that can happen?
If you do this and remember the impact of emotional relatability, than you can minimize your risk on the digital front just as well as the best of them out there. However, this absolutely needs to be a part of your corporate culture. It needs to be a mandatory part of your communications processes – from public diplomacy, PR, marketing, advertising, internal communications, etc.
Had British Airways done this prior to launching this campaign, they would have saved themselves from a huge gaff that threatened their reputation as it made them look heartless and ignorant.
Make minimizing your risk part of your corporate culture
This digital landscape isn’t as unpredictable as it seems. If you can teach your team to understand human behavior – because even though the technology evolves quickly, human beings are at the heart of this digital landscape, they’re what drive it – then you can learn to assess the risk of each and every communication (those you publish, as well as those published about or against you) by reflecting on the communication’s emotional impact and relatability to your audiences and stakeholders.
This is the first step to empowerment. When you minimize your risk and therefore minimize your vulnerability, you will feel more comfortable to take the necessary proactive measures to position your organization as the voice of credibility, trust and leadership that will permit you to fight and win on the social media front. I will discuss exactly what I mean by this – and how to do it – in my next post, so stay tuned!
Read part 2 of this blog series: Position Your Organization as the Voice of Credibility, Trust and Leadership, Now
Author of Crisis Ready: Building an Invincible Brand in an Uncertain World, Melissa Agnes is a leading authority on crisis preparedness, reputation management, and brand protection. Agnes is a coveted keynote speaker, commentator, and advisor to some of today’s leading organizations faced with the greatest risks. Learn more about Melissa and her work here.