How should local organisations respond to crises?

A few weeks ago a woman died at my local netball competition.

Thankfully, I wasn’t there to witness the event. I play socially with friends at the local competition every Tuesday night. As I was pulling out of my driveway at 8.00pm for an 8.30pm game I received a text message from our team captain advising us that our game had been cancelled due to an ’emergency’. As is natural in a situation like that, I shrugged, assumed the ’emergency’ had something to do with the physical state of the facility (it’s in an area prone to heavy flooding and falling trees) and went back inside to enjoy the rest of my Tuesday night.

Thanks to Facebook, we found out what had happened a couple of hours later. Of course we only heard the bare facts, presented to us the same way that the Facebook grapevine of third-degree contacts always works. A woman had died earlier in the night playing netball. Her sister was also at the game. The staff running the competition were distressed but handled the situation well. An ambulance arrived and pronounced the woman dead at the scene.

In addition to the fact that it shook all my notions about mortality and the frivolity of life (as events such as these are wont to do), it got me thinking about how organisations communicate in a crisis. Of course larger multi-national companies will always have a formal crisis communications plan in place, ready to implement at the moment an incident occurs. In most instances SMEs will also have at least considered how to best communicate with their publics in the event of an incident or crisis. But what of a small community organisation, run in the evenings by those who enjoy netball as a hobby?

The netball organisation didn’t release a formal statement on the Tuesday night, but thanks to the widespread and insatiable nature of online communications many members of the competition found out about the incident nonetheless. It wasn’t until Thursday afternoon, two days after the incident, that the organisation released an official statement.

An email was sent to every competitor informing them of the situation. The email described the situation where a player – who was standing at the far end of the court by herself and not involved in play at the time – collapsed in the middle of a game. Despite the revival efforts of the players and netball staff on-site the woman was not able to be revived and pronounced dead at the scene when ambulance crews arrived. The email stated that in an effort to maintain regularity the competition would continue next Tuesday, but counsellors would be on-site to provide assistance to any players who felt the need and that they encouraged all players to wear a black armband as a sign of respect.

This email was informative and respectful. It shifted blame for the incident away from the organisation (by stating the woman was not in play when she collapsed) but it did so in only a single sentence. Rather, the bulk of the 400 word email provided information about how the incident was handled on the night and how the organisation would continue to provide support for all affected players.

Most importantly, the email was written with a human voice. As a community organisation, all of the players knew the organisers of the competition, and their strategic response was wrapped within their warmth, personality and empathy. There was no strategic communication plan – only one email – to try to deal with the crisis. The event was not only a tragedy, but also a crisis that a small, local community netball competition could not have foreseen, and the organisers of the competition should be commended for their reaction to the tragedy.


Podcasting as a PR tool

People are exposed to so much advertising in their daily lives. There are millions of organisations trying to connect with people every day. With so much competition, organisations need to find interesting and engaging ways to connect with their target publics.

Podcasting – regularly distributed audio content delivered on a subscription basis – is becoming more and more common, but is it really an effective way for  is an effective way for organisations to develop effective relationships with their listening target public?

Benefits of podcasting

One of the key advantages of podcasting is that they are relatively quick and cheap to create and can be delivered within a very short time-frame. Like blogging they don’t require a high level of technological know-how or prohibitively expensive equipment; thanks to the growing popularity of smart phones its now much easier to create and listen to podcasts. This means that podcasting is a great PR tool for smaller organisations, such as not for profits (NFPs) or Small- to Medium-Enterprises (SMEs) who often lack the time and financial resources of their much larger, corporate competitors.

However, unlike blogging, podcasts can be listened to on-the-run. Podcasts can be “time-shifted” [1], meaning that audiences don’t need to listen to them in real-time; they can download them to their personal devices and listen to them whenever they have the time, whether that be while they are getting ready in the morning, sitting on public transport, or gardening in the backyard. Moreover, as a subscription service that people receive regularly, podcasts have the added benefit of building more effective and honest organisation-public relationships.

Giving the (target) public what they want

While podcasting can be an excellent PR tool, organisations need to carefully think about the content they want to distribute via podcasting; no one is going to download a podcast if it’s not interesting. This means that organisations must provide the customer with the information that they want, rather than just the information that the organisation wants to provide.

I’m a podcaster. I spend two hours of each work day sitting on a bus commuting to the CBD, and podcasts liven up an otherwise dull (and sometimes incredibly frustrating) public transport experience. For me it’s almost a ritual; each Sunday evening I scour the internet for interesting podcasts from a wide variety of sites and organisations to keep me entertained for the better part of 10 hours of the coming week. Sometimes I even look forward to finishing work, not because I get to log off and head home, but because I get to sit down for an hour on the way home to a particular podcast that I’ve been looking forward to.

In other words, I’m a podcaster’s target public. I invest time in searching for podcasts, I regularly listen to them and I’m always eager to explore new podcasts.

Being a podcaster’s target public, however, does not automatically translate into being a PR podcaster’s target public. This is one of the limitations of podcasting.

Building relationships through podcasts

It would be incorrect to say that podcasting isn’t t relevant to all organisations. Rather, podcasting is only relevant to organisations who are willing to invest the time and resources into developing content (in the form of stories, facts, exposes or interviews) that their target publics are interested in.

Many organisations that currently podcast are those which are more traditionally aligned with news or media (two of my favourite places to source podcasts are the ABC and the BBC), however that is not to say that only news organisations can produce interesting podcasts.

Experienced PR practitioners who understand how to communicate with publics use podcasts as a tool to tell the story of the organisation. Messages from the CEO, service use information, financial news and technology briefs are all examples of podcast content are used by corporations, but organisations can also use podcasts to leverage the insight they have over their target public’s interests and connect with them on a more personal level. This may include interviews with celebrities and personalities (for example a bike company undertaking an interview with Tour de France winner Cadel Evans or a film company interviewing a director or actor just before the release of their new film), providing industry insights (for example a digital data management firm producing a podcast about discussing how the Facebook’s latest algorithm changes will affect your personal cyber security) or related any information (for example an organic food store releasing a regular recipe podcast).

In the opinion of this avid podcaster, a successful podcast is one of the most effective tools organisations can employ to tell their story, provide interesting news and information to their listeners and help build a relationship with their target public. There’s lots of great ways for organisations to connect with their target public through podcasts (if you’re looking for some creating ideas about podcast content, check out this great blog post 20 Creative Uses for Podcasts). They key to successful podcasting – and the subsequent organisation public relationship building –  is to provide interesting information that your target public actually wants to hear.


[1] Christopher S. Penn in Scott, DM 2007, ‘Podcasting and video made, well, as easy as possible’, The new rules of marketing and PR: how to use news releases, blogs, podcasting, viral marketing and online media to reach buyers directly, John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey, pp. 217–27


What’s the point of blogging?

‘Twitter is like a calling card. Facebook is like a phone call. Blogging is like a full-fledged conversation!’

The above comment was written by a blog reader in response to one of Deb Pilgrim’s blogs. While it may not be academic in its origins, or based on any hard research, in my opinion this anecdotal observation is perhaps one of the most effective ways to summarise blogs and the role they play in strategic communications.

Blogs are organic, and organic conversations are more likely to be trusted. Daily dialogue between friends and family aren’t structured; rather they follow the flow of a natural rhythm. In this manner, dialogue between an organisation and a public is more likely to be trusted if it is perceived as more colloquial, genuine and organic.

In their analysis of public relations weblogs Jordi Xifra and Assumpció Huertas [1] identify personal communication and the possibility of commenting as two defining features which set them apart from other online communication tools. By providing the opportunity to establish a human relationship, blogs provide an effective tool for two-way symmetrical communication models.

Blogging and the PR practitioner

The inability of PR practitioners to understand the importance of blogs in the over-arching communication strategy is a symptom of the PR industry’s inability to understand the modern, participatory and egalitarian nature of online communications. PR and communications professionals with a corporate focus approach communication as a tool for overcoming challenges to organisational objectives. This type of thinking limits their ability to identify opportunities to engage in real dialogue with stakeholders, and as such they miss opportunities to build relationships built on trust.

Indeed, PR and marketing professionals are quick to dismiss blogs and their importance in a wider communication strategy because they hold them up against traditional print communications, such as magazines and newspaper [2]. They compare apples with pears, and in doing so fail to grasp the importance not only of blogging, but of the participatory and pliable nature of online communications.

Shrugging off the corporate persona

Unlike the traditional public relations attitudes of ‘command and control’, modern day practitioners are required to shift their thinking to model of ‘listen and participate’ [3]. Blogs allow organisations to shrug off their impersonal corporate persona, and develop a real online community with their target public. Regular blogging not only provides honest and effective communication with target publics, it allows key stakeholders to feel as if they are being given a true (and personable) insight into the organisation.

While certain larger and more traditional communications practitioners may refuse to recognise the legitimacy of blogs as a communication method, the growing popularity of blogging is providing small- to medium-enterprises (as well as smaller NGOs) with a cost-effective opportunity to stay in touch with their publics.

If organisations want to exploit the full potential of blogs they need to stop using them as a ‘tool’ and rather embrace them as a style of communication. Organisations would be better placed to hire one single practitioner who has been an experienced personal blogger, and work with them to try and express the corporate voice, values, aims and ethics in a regular blog, as well as to scour the internet and comment accordingly in line with the organisation’s values on the blog’s of others.


[1] Xifra, J & Huertas, A 2008, ‘Blogging PR: an exploratory analysis of public relations weblog’, Public Relations Review 34 (3), pp. 269–75.

[2] Scott, DM 2007, The new rules of marketing and PR, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, New Jersey.

[3] Scoble, R & Israel, S 2006, Naked conversations: how blogs are changing the way businesses talk with customers, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, New Jersey.


The ethical way to respond to negative criticism online

What are the ethics of communicating with your target publics online? Traditionally, the masses were dictated a message by PR machines (either through print or visual media) and had very little right of reply. Anyone who disagreed with a particular message was able to call or write to the organisation, but generally speaking an individual’s concern was dealt with in a discrete manner and with little damage to the organisation’s brand.

But with the advent of social media, organisations are required to adopt a more personable online profile. They need to be able to communicate with their online communities more as a peer, rather than as a faceless organisation. Nielsen says that ‘Too many professional communicators in PR as well as journalism, still just do not get new media’  [1]. Organisations do not wield the same control over their message that they once did; now their brand is subject to the increasingly public nature of online criticism. PR practitioners need to understand this fact, and deal with negative commentary towards their brand shared on online spaces accordingly.

Responding appropriately to negative commentary

Hallahan claims that organisations need to monitor the spread of cyber-attacks or rumours relating to their brand and respond appropriately [2]. But what happens when an individual expresses their opinion on your Facebook wall, Twitter profile or blog that negatively damages your brand? What is the ethical way to respond to the situation?

Organisations that don’t allow negative commentary about their brand on their platforms risk creating an inauthentic environment which drives their audience to other platforms to express their negative opinion of the brand [3]. This means that this negative commentary may move to a platform over which the organisation has even less control. The only way for an organisation to deal with online negative commentary is to deal with it openly and appropriately.

An effective online PR strategy should take into account the risk that an online community may not always agree with your actions. Just in the same way that publics in the past were able to write a letter directly to an organisation to express their negative opinion or complaints, the internet provides a forum for individuals to do the same thing publicly where it can be seen – and sometimes even shared –  by others. When faced with this situation, online PR practitioners should not delete the post or tweet, or enter into a tit-for-tat public argument with the user, or just outright delete the social account or forum on which the complaint was posted.

The internet gives voice to the little people. This growing medium forces organisations to communicate with ‘the little people’ on their terms, using their platform. No longer can organisations dictated the flow of information – now they need to compete with the populous.  Facebook constantly makes it more difficult for business to interact with audiences and a corporation using Twitter only has 140 characters in which to express its message, the same as everybody else.

One of the best approaches to manage negative commentary around an organisation is for PR practitioners to allow (and potentially even encourage) well-argued criticisms to be voiced so that other members of the online community can counter-argue the criticism [4]. The benefits for organisations is that they are now provided the opportunity to respond to these criticisms and complaints publicly. This means that a complaint posted on a corporate Facebook profile allows an organisation to resolve the issue publicly; in this process they should not only be able to resolve the complaint, but also publicly prove to their online target public that they are willing to enter into a real and honest dialogue about their actions.


[1] Nielsen, Y 2003, ‘Public relations and new media in the Australian context’, in M Rao (ed.), News media and new media: the Asia-Pacific Internet handbook, Episode 5, Eastern Universities Press, Singapore, p 170.

[2] Hallahan, K 2004, ‘Protecting an organization’s digital public relations assets‘, Public Relations Review, vol. 30, iss. 3, September, pp. 255–68.

[3] McWilliam, G 2000, ‘Building stronger brands through online communities‘, MIT Sloan Management Review, Spring.

[4] Ibid.