by Matt Barkett

May 22, 2023

A few trends in crisis communications have recently emerged as powerful forces in shaping how we respond. In no particular order, they are:

  • Social media’s influence
  • Politicization/polarization
  • Societal issues take on an outsized influence

Let’s take a look at each trend.

1. Social media’s influence

Social media’s influence probably surprises no one by this point. While some may view social media as negative, it can drive conversations and bring attention to issues in unique ways that traditional media used to carry on its own.

Let’s look at the East Palestine train derailment as one example. The situation was dire in the outset and worsened each day, with more images appearing online and other mitigating factors coming into play, such as perceived latency in the company’s response, local health issues that surfaced, government inaction and eventual intervention by politicians. Each of these continued to drive discussion online. The speed and intensity with which social media delivers images and comments (from any commenter at any time) certainly contributed to the duration of this crisis’ time in the media.

2. Politicization/polarization

The train derailment also illustrates the role of politics in crises. These days, major accidents and incidents in the community nearly always get a political slant, particularly when they align with hot-button issues, including education and the environment.

Polarized public opinion fans the flames of activists on both sides of the aisle who increasingly engage in activism online and in protests around topics like critical race theory and anti-Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) reporting and standards.

Activism also extends into the social realm and pertains to specific populations. One example of this involves Anheuser-Busch’s inclusion of a trans influencer as a marketing partner for Bud Light. While other companies (including Starbucks and Nike) have gone similar routes, the backlash from Bud Light’s core base (which is mostly conservative, as opposed to the broader viewpoints of Starbucks’ and Nike’s customer bases) was so strong – particularly online – that the company lost sales and sustained brand damage.

3. Societal issues take on an outsized influence

While Anheuser-Busch ran the marketing campaign knowing there could be backlash, sometimes events today that have nothing to do with a business or its operations can become a crisis. Societal issues have taken on an outsized influence as social justice, diversity and activism take the forefront in many crisis situations and impact organizations of all sizes.

The death of George Floyd ignited a race clash that led to the Black Lives Matter movement and arguments about defunding the police as racial tensions exploded nationwide to a degree not seen since the 1960s.

Suddenly, consumers and stakeholders were asking companies to define their stances on racism and social justice – from signing petitions to displaying social justice/diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) commitments on their websites under the CEO’s signature. The challenge happened quickly, too, and companies had to decide what they were willing to say about their commitments to social justice and DE&I at their organizations.

So what do you do if your company is facing communication-related pressure during a crisis? Here are a few tips and guidelines:

  • Make sure you have good media monitoring and social sentiment analysis at the ready to stay on top of what’s being said online and enable you to make informed decisions for how to respond (if you respond).
  • If you decide to communicate online, try to do it via written statements where you control the content. Online debates are rarely successful when they involve activists whose arguments are often based on emotion.
  • Remember that employees are reflective of society, which means their points of view can be polarized. Ensure that any statement you make on behalf of the business is measured and represents what is best for the business as a whole.
  • Prioritize messaging for internal (employee) audiences, not the media; your employees are your cultural ambassadors and maintaining alignment with them is in the best interest of the business.