A recent conflux of news stories has placed a very standard communications practice under the microscope.
Media monitoring in general, and monitoring during a crisis in particular, takes on a different sheen when the general public is being bombarded with stories about how extensively we are being tracked and how pervasive Facebook’s personal data collection is—and the brokering of that information to private companies like Cambridge Analytica—are in the news.
Over the last decade, communicators and the general public alike have grown accustomed to both the promises and perils of social media. It connects us, and public commentary provides a rich source of feedback for communications professionals. We’ve also seen how social postings can generate negative repercussions, even the loss of a job. By now we know that what we share is discoverable.
Like any profession, public relations work contains elements that are second nature to us, but not well-understood by those outside of the profession. I’d argue that monitoring—particularly social media monitoring—falls into that category.
In an environment where we’re learning about how much of our online activity is tracked, the discovery that if our comments on social media contain this word or that one they might be included in a report can feel intrusive.
One of a communicator’s most important job skills is to understand the audience. Particularly in the current news environment, we need to think carefully about how monitoring is perceived.
This is particularly true during crisis work. People can feel scared, vulnerable, or angry. How would knowledge that their comments are being monitored come across?
Monitoring media—whether traditional or social—is a standard practice.
One of the things that any organization in a crisis is told to do is monitor media, and these days that includes monitoring social media. It’s crucial to monitor for a whole variety of reasons: to know what is being said, to see how the story is changing, to determine if spokespeople are providing effective responses, and more.
This is a standard procedure in public relations and communications work, and has been for many years.
Paying attention to and analyzing media—social and traditional—is how brands determine how to move forward after a crisis, when they begin to do the hard work of repairing reputations.
Monitoring work done using best practices searches for content that is publicly available, and PR pros seem to assume people understand this—and that might not always be the case.
PR crisis strategy and tactics should always be viewed through the lens of the specific crisis being addressed: there is no one-size-fits-all in crisis communications. Empathy is key.
Monitoring isn’t unethical, but how the information is used is crucial.
Monitoring, like data itself, is agnostic. Collecting news stories and Tweets based on keywords can be a fully automated activity driven by algorithms. If you’ve ever done a keyword-based news search on Google or tried to locate Tweets based on a keyword, you’ve conducted manual monitoring work. Set up an algorithm to look for that content and that’s automated monitoring work.
Reaching back even further, before the internet was a routine part of our lives, if you ever followed a news story in the paper or on television as it unfolded over the course of days, you’ve monitored media.
PR firms tasked with monitoring should ask—and understand—how the monitoring information they are collecting will be used.
Monitoring is standard in a crisis. Almost all PR crisis work is due to people being negatively affected in some way; that’s mostly what makes it a crisis. Whether it is the well-known Tylenol scare, packaged greens contaminated with E.coli, or the MSU/Larry Nassar crisis, when people are affected, it’s a crisis.
Reviewing what people are saying in public forums can be critical when developing a response—if a brand or organization doesn’t understand, it will likely say the wrong thing.
In fact, one of the worst accusations that can be made against a company in a crisis is: You weren’t listening.
These days, there is no excuse for failing to pay attention to public reaction.
What is done with that information is where the line between ethical and unethical resides.
If you’re monitoring during a crisis and learn that there is a community of affected people you weren’t aware of, and you use this information to reach out to that group, that’s a good use of monitoring.
Using information collected to question the veracity of victims’ motives is not. And, using monitoring to bolster the defense’s case is always going to look bad. Optics matter, especially in a crisis.
Let’s talk about crises and cost.
There’s another aspect of PR work that isn’t well understood, and that is the cost.
Crisis work is expensive, and depending on the crisis it can swallow up an enormous amount of resources. Back when I was in PR with an agency, we worked with a client during a crisis with a global footprint that required staff working around the clock. We worked shifts, all week and all weekend—and this was before social media was part of the picture. If I’m remembering correctly, the hourly rate that I was billed out at was somewhere in the range of $165 to $185 an hour—back in 2000 to 2001.
The hours racked up quickly, as you can imagine.
Billable hours get a bad rap for a reason. They punish efficiency, clients don’t like them, and I haven’t met a PR person yet who enjoys tracking time. In a crisis that requires all hands on deck, it becomes far more difficult to plan out the most efficient mix of junior/middle/senior-level practitioners to manage charges, and bills can spiral.
On the flip side, it would be just as problematic to commit to a crisis account based on a set charge. Crises are dynamic and can be unpredictable. Firms doing crisis work could find themselves upside-down on accounts very quickly.
What’s a PR pro to do?
At a minimum, think about how monitoring work will be deployed. How monitoring is done and to what end will matter more in some crises than others. Again, monitoring itself is simply an exercise in data collection. It’s what is done with the information collected that could cause problems.