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David Krejci, Weber ShandwickDigital media has intensified the importance of fast, smart crisis communications strategies. Brands know they can’t control the public reaction to snafus, nor can they ignore them or hope they'll just fade away.

PR professionals routinely run drills to suss out what will happen in a crisis. In this age of real-time social media, tools are emerging such as FireBell - a "social crisis simulator" from PR agency Weber Shandwick - to help make the reaction equally instantaneous.

We chatted with David Krejci, the agency's SVP of digital communications, to get a read on how technology is driving the evolution of crisis communications at the agency.

How can you effectively simulate a social media crisis?

Crisis drills are a PR staple; you get everyone in a room and run a scenario. Social media has just added new elements; questions like, “What would you do if someone said this on Facebook?” or “What if your employee tweeted this?” Still, if it’s done with Powerpoint, it’s a very static experience.

We found that the learning curve went up immediately when we were actually working with clients in the midst of a crisis. So we tried to take the learnings we gained from those experiences and fabricate a more realistic crisis – complete with comments on Facebook, Twitter updates and other dialogue.

So is FireBell an actual program that fabricates the content and the intensity? 

It’s not a program in the sense of software that clients can license and go off with themselves. It’s part of a four-hour drill.

A crisis specialist helps execute it, and we build in content that suits the client’s social media presence. We can reproduce any content on the web – a forum, a Facebook or Twitter page, a LinkedIn profile, Yelp reviews – in a hosted environment that the client then gets to respond to, and update in real time.

Is there automation involved? 

Not really. It’s a team of us actually responding to the clients as the public – with a mixture of adversaries or fans of the brand.  For example, if they post something on Facebook and try to delete during the drill, we’ll respond as 15 or 20 people reposting the link or commenting about why they deleted the post. That’s what makes it active and exciting.

That said, one thing I do think we’ll work on is the ability to dump 200 tweets or comments into the system all at once – because that’s how they come in during a crisis. Our team is inputting all the content, and we just can’t do it that fast. I’d love to have a button where it could add 30 retweets of an angry tweet.

Do you think FireBell could evolve into a software as a service (SaaS) that you’d offer to clients?

I don’t think so. Even with some automation, we’d never want to lose the human element of us reacting to what the client is saying. It’s extremely difficult to automate dialogue.

We’re saying things to clients as if we’re people that hate them, and their reactions to it are extremely insightful. They might tweet a response, and we’ll take what they say, twist it, make it much worse and amplify it across multiple channels – and lots of times, the client argues that it isn’t “fair.”

That’s part of what we’re trying to get them to understand. None of what’s happening in the drill – or in a real social media crisis – is necessarily “fair.” They have to think carefully about every email, or tweet or Facebook response, and a computer program alone can’t encourage that. 

How do clients determine the effectiveness? How does Weber Shandwick figure out if FireBell is a useful tool?

We’ve tested it with two clients over the past few months – which gave us the confidence to make it available overall. As for effectiveness, we give clients a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis after the drill.

For example, a telecom client might discover that their customer service line is completely disconnected from the rest of their communications team. So a crisis happens, people call customer service to rant about it and the customer service reps have no clue. We’d recommend that they develop a manageable, immediate connection between customer service and corporate communications.

A disconnect with legal is another example. A CPG client might be worried because a particular kind of crisis could result in a class action lawsuit. But they already made 17 comments on Facebook – one of which was “I’m really sorry that happened, please give us a call and we’ll take care of it for you” – and that could be considered an admission of guilt in some cases. All the social media manager was trying to do was be human, engaging and genuine – good things – but if legal had been involved from the start, they may have prevented them from saying it.

When we run the drill, we encourage them to have HR, marketing, corporate communications, legal and whoever else is involved with consumer-facing communication in the room together.

Later this week, I'll post a follow-up Q&A with Monte Lutz, SVP of digital at Edelman, for his company's take on the evolution of crisis communications in the age of digital and social media.

Tameka Kee

Published 30 November, 2010 by Tameka Kee

Tameka Kee has been covering digital media with a focus on online advertising, social media and gaming since 2007. Find her at tamekakee.com or follow her on Twitter

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