Crisis Averted… Sometimes

One tweet, one snapchat, one viral video: that’s all it takes for a journalist to get the story out there. That’s also all it takes for PR professionals to have a crisis on their hands.

Social media is making a serious mark in the world of communication. Instead of applying to newspapers, writing out stories, and getting those stories edited; people can just open their phones and start recording. Instant journalists. So what does that have to do with public relations?

It’s easy to “go viral” or post statements, pictures and videos. Anyone can post anything on the internet, especially if it’s scandalous. Actually, I would say the content is more likely to go viral if the content is scandalous. While the user is getting their 15 minutes of fame, the subject in the post is probably scrambling to manage their reputation. That’s where crisis communication comes in. In today’s society, PR professionals are forced to combat more crises and are expected to do so at a faster rate.

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For example, in May of 2016, the Cincinnati Zoo was slapped with a huge scandal. Crisis communication teams worked full force to manage the zoo’s reputation after a young boy made his way in to a gorilla’s exhibit. The zoo made the fast-paced decision to kill the gorilla. Everyone in the country decided to put their opinions on the matter because someone filmed the entire event, and posted it online. A mother and father were publicly vilified and the rare gorilla, Harambe, became an ongoing pop-culture joke. In addition, animal rights groups led a national debate as to whether or not Harambe should have been killed. How did it become a matter of national opinion so quickly? Facebook.

For a week and a half, the zoo’s PR team was doing everything they could to prevent the ongoing crisis, including building fences (literally), holding press conferences and raising awareness for the endangered animal. But the video of Harambe dragging the toddler around and eventually being shot to death, turned in to a public catastrophe for the Cincinnati zoo.

If it weren’t so easy for people to be instant journalists, I think it’s safe to say that PR professionals wouldn’t have as many surprises to deal with throughout their work day. Like the Harambe scandal, PR professional don’t have a way of expecting or preparing for social media scandals such as this one, especially when they’re creating the initial crisis communication plan for their client. So while the rise of social media and technology negatively affects old-school journalism, it also pains the public relations world.

Social media hurts public relations because of the instant unexpected aspect of crises, and also because social media provides journalists with more power. One of the key differences between journalism and public relations is that journalism tells the unbiased, undoubted truth of the story and public relations tells the story in attempts to maintain the positive attributes of the client’s reputation.  When scandals like “Harambe” happen, audiences get the brutal truth of the situation because the raw video is posted online for the world to see. It’s basically impossible for PR professionals to strategically communicate when the video has gone viral.

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