Why SEO is more powerful than your CEO when crisis strikes

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Business owner

Many critics and commentators look to the chief executive when crisis hits a brand or organisation. It’s recently become a matter of anecdotal wisdom that those businesses that survive crises best only do so because of the authority, credibility and empathy of their senior leaders.

Certainly those organisations with inept executives or spokespeople are heavily criticised and lambasted during, and even well after, the crisis event. But be clear, chief executive crisis appearances are often about the semiology of sincerity and the appearance of a swift response.

Read more: 11 ways to stop an online issue turning into a PR disaster

An out-dated crisis communication model

Historically, under-fire brands needed a consistent, calm authority figure that became the sole point of company crisis information; someone who could present a personable face for the business while it was under duress.

And there’s our first huge problem; many businesses still use a historic media and crisis communication model, rather than a contemporarily configured one. You see, in the modern media arena, the number of experts, pundits and sources—each replete with their opinions and retrospective ‘shoulda’s and woulda’s’—have multiplied significantly. One (chief executive) person cannot address all those fragmented audiences simultaneously.

In crisis, critics and detractors publish incessantly, inaccurately, and certainly more frequently than the under-the-cosh corporate. Crisis companies lose fair share of voice, almost as soon as the crisis breaks.

Erroneous content can fuel search results first

Online channels pick up much of this early, frequently erroneous, content. Due to the source traffic volumes and search engine rankings, the ‘wrong’ content infiltrates search engine results. And as over 90% of online searchers click on the highest-ranking webpages and sites first, ‘the fix’ is often in! Crisis-hit entities need to use search engine optimisation (SEO) to ensure their pages get priority perusal.

But typically, I still lament what the majority seem to be doing. Many are waiting for the board or legal to approve holding statements, or rehearsing the chief executive with sound bites designed to placate a media ever ready to pounce on mispronunciations or misallocation of accountability or blame. The communications focus has become erroneous; technology makes it so.

Chief executives are outgunned by SEO speculation

In terms of message spread and traction, your chief executive is easily outgunned by speed, by speculation and by volume of overwhelmingly critical search engine optimised content. As a consequence, the effectiveness and impact of the chief executive in a crisis is fast being overtaken by the pre-eminent role of search engines (and SEO) in ‘framing the crisis narrative’.

After all, when a crisis breaks, many people trust search engines first to help them divine which channel they’ll follow for news on the incident information. So the big challenge facing brands-in-disaster is: ”Who are crisis followers listening to?” (And by association, “how do we get them to listen to us?”)

Why do companies still cede narrative relevance?

We could realistically expect a business at the sharp end of any crisis to be best positioned to explain and expose what’s truly happening—with updates, footage and on-the-ground interviews. For this to happen, companies need to move into the proprietary news business rather than just the reactive communications business.

But too often, businesses don’t just fail to command narrative authority in a crisis. Their message management methodology is pre-programmed to hand over that authority to third party media channels. They quickly cede influence.

In only grooming and training their chief executive to perform for traditional news outlets, the beleaguered ‘body corporate’ cedes influence to a process that sees them lose narrative relevance as soon as the crisis breaks. In so doing, they’re again relinquishing their power, the privilege of their reporting position at the crisis coalface and, ultimately, their reputation.

Move into the news business

Despite the newer digital media offering plentiful opportunities to publish crisis updates straight to stakeholders (and search engines), only a minority of Aussie corporates have restructured their message distribution strategies—and resourced their communications teams—to get into the news business.

Now I’m not saying the role of any chief executive in a crisis is redundant—not at all. But given the changes in our information, news and content sharing environments, the importance and impact of good SEO is an absolute mandatory in determining a fairer share of how the story is created, disseminated and located.

Ideally, you twin your chief executive’s status with all the SEO smarts at your disposal and drive your narrative to best represent your business; in crisis times and in peace times.

The big question is: “Do you really know the drill of modern crisis management?”

Gerry McCusker is an issues management specialist and the founder of Engage ORM

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Gerry McCusker is an issues management specialist and the author of the "PR Disasters" book and blog. Having consulted to the agriculture, energy, food, government, healthcare and oil and gas sectors, Gerry runs Engage ORM (Online Reputation Management), a Melbourne-based issues and crisis consultancy specialising in crisis simulations and strategy.

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