You could live an entire lifetime and not witness a more cringe-worthy political moment then Rick Perry’s performance at the Republican debate in Michigan on November 8th.
Texas Governor Perry was unable to identify the third of three federal agencies that he was planning to shutter immediately upon being elected president.
The lifecycle of the Perry “gaffe” story is consistent with other recent political meltdowns, such as former Representative Anthony Weiner having to explain why he lied about tweeting pictures of his junk to several women, none of whom were his pregnant wife.
There are three distinct phases in the “glad it’s not me” story lifecycle:
1. Media outlets (in a bid for ratings) run photos, audio, video and endless commentary on the implications of the story for the protagonist, and what it means for the very future of our society.
2. Talk show hosts and late night comedians thank the comedy gods for their gifts, and in the case of Perry, for helping them to achieve comedic “erections.”
3. And finally the “teachable moment” replete with “lessons learned” including recommendations on how a faster and more coordinated response using social media channels could have minimized the negative impact, and the run rate, of the crisis.
Due to the speed, amplification and ubiquity of social media, the pressure on PR professionals to respond quickly and effectively to negative sentiment has never been greater.
According to Jeremiah Owyang of The Altimeter Group, not only are social media crises on the rise, 76% of social media crises between 2001 and 2011 could have been “diminished or prevented” had the right strategy and processes been in place to mitigate the damage.
Could the reaction to Perry’s public gaffe have been diminished or prevented?
According to Heidi Cohen, President of Riverside Marketing Strategies recent post Is Your Company Ready for a Social Media PR Crisis?, Rick Perry’s Michigan presidential debate “oops” gaffe is a classic example of the need for social media and PR crisis management and damage control.
Perry’s teachable moment underscores that businesses must be ready to respond at a moment’s notice to issues in today’s social media landscape, especially when your oops moment goes viral in less than 24 hours without any way to control it. Is your firm’s social media ready for an issue or crisis affecting you or one of your competitors?”
Further, Cohen suggests that “While Perry kidded about how he stepped in it, the real problem was his team’s slow response.”
Was it, though?
It’s hard to imagine any level of spin or redirection that could erase the image of Perry’s groping to find the answer to a question that he was prepared for and, more importantly, something he believes is fundamental to reducing the footprint of the federal government. In that moment Perry’s credentials to be President of the United States were put under a microscope.
Did Perry demonstrate the capacity to synthesize information quickly under duress and respond effectively in a moment of crisis? Can we visualize Perry negotiating with a nuclear-armed Iran?
While I disagree with Cohen’s assertion that social media preparedness could have measurably improved the impact of Perry’s gaffe, her outline for a “Real-time crisis management plan” has sound advice:
- Who gets contacted in the case of a social media or PR crisis? This means your first line of response must include representatives from your marketing, PR, and communications teams, as well as every customer-facing department such as senior management, social media staff, sales, retail staff, customer service, and investor relations. Don’t overlook legal, regulatory, and/or HR staff because you’ll need their input regarding what you can say and do . Have the office and mobile phone numbers of all key people as well as those for their backups. Further, have a firm specializing in crisis management on retainer that you can call if it’s a significant issue.
- Who needs to approve communications and/or actions? Once the crisis hits, your team has to react quickly and effectively. It’s not the time to figure out who’ll approve what and who gets called. This must be mapped out and run through at least every six months because your issue is most likely to happen when no one’s around.
- Who will execute the activities and/or communications? In addition to notifying appropriate personnel and obtaining approval to act, you need a team ready to execute the plan. To ensure you’re covered, include your social media team to interact with consumers, your creative and content teams to develop any content required, and your technology team to make any changes and ensure your site remains up if the traffic spikes. If this staff isn’t part of your employee base, how do you contact them?
Another great resource for PR Crisis planning is Think Before you Tweet: Crisis Communication in an Era of Got-to-Have information.
Social Media is a wonderful tool. At its heart it is about listening, sharing, and forging relationships. As my friend Richard Marti Allen Jr stated in his comment on Cohen’s blog:
“Eliminating the chance of mistakes before hand preempts the need to mitigate damage. In relationships, whether they are one to one or one to many, the time to build the emotional bank account is before crisis. In social media, we need to build and nurture relationships first. If they are strong, the relationship can weather mistakes. If not, they are doomed by the first slip.”
And that my friends, is a teachable moment.
(For more on managing a social media crisis Six Keys to a Great Apology).