October 21, 2017

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

How To Determine if you have a “crisis” or “kerfuffle”

How To Determine if you have a “crisis” or “kerfuffle”

Penn State. Chapstick. Ragu. Jet Blue. BP. Motrin Moms.

What do these have in common? They’ve all been referred to as PR “crises.”

But what is a crisis? Last month, Chip Griffin made the rather sweeping proclamation on the Media Bullseye Roundtable that there is no such thing as a “social media crisis.” His point—and I am paraphrasing—is that if an issue that generates discussion is confined primarily to social media, it by definition does not amount to a crisis.

The incidents above that were largely confined to social media (Chapstick, Ragu, and Motrin Moms) of course needed to be dealt with and addressed. They called into question the mentioned brands’ proficiency in social media, their commitment to customers on some level, and bore evidence of questionable response times. Each incident took on a life of its own online, and resulted in strong criticism of the respective brands.

But were they crises? Ultimately, the brands were not in any danger long-term. The worst that can be said in any of the above mentioned “crises” is that the brand had a social media lapse in judgment, as far as program execution went. If we are to understand a crisis as a sudden and dramatic turning point—something which alters the further course—I don’t think Chapstick, et al fit the description.

So how do you know when you have a crisis on your hands, or a kerfuffle?

When we look at the others listed above—Penn State, Jet Blue, and BP—the distinction that Chip makes becomes clearer. There are serious or long-term impacts for the brands involved. While each of these topics definitely were and are being discussed in social media, the ramifications of the stories are far wider.

The Jet Blue/Steven Slater incident had facets that ranged well beyond an online dust-up: it was first and foremost a personnel issue that had to be managed with care. And as the post that sparked the Media Bullseye discussion noted, the deployment of the escape chute could have injured or killed someone on the ground. While the “flight-attendant-gets-fed-up-and-exits-with-two-beers-and-a-ride” narrative is amusing, there were a number of elements present that made this incident a crisis.

British Petroleum will spend years cleaning up the mess that unfolded with the oil spill, both literally and metaphorically. Eleven oil workers lost their lives, a CEO lost his job, and many, many animals died. Businesses are still trying to recover from the lost revenue; some folded permanently due to the spill. This is a crisis.

We continue to watch the Penn State mess unfold. There are so many tragedies and crises in that story that I almost don’t know where to start. This is unquestionably a crisis, and one which may continue to unfold further.

In short, a minor flap online that upsets, inflames or irritates those of us who have come to expect a certain level of proficiency in social media does not a crisis make. By describing such events as crises, we are cheapening the word, and like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, soon the critique of such kerfuffles will fall on deaf ears.

When trying to assess the difference between a crisis and a kerfuffle, the key point that needs to be examined is the potential to have a long-term impact on the sales, reputation, or perhaps even the existence of the company or brand in question. If the answer is yes, that there is potential for long-term damage, crisis is the right word to use. If it’s likely to be forgotten in the near term, then it probably doesn’t merit the designation of a crisis.

By the way, Judy Gombita took a great look at the same sorts of questions from a different perspective in her post on Windmill Networking recently—check it out!

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for just over 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR work, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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