Paracrisis management in the digital age: Evidence-based practices for managers and professionals
Now more than ever, companies are relying on digital services like social media and blogs to conduct business and engage in customer service. With networking services like LinkedIn and Twitter as microblogging, even employees and potential employees are expected to have some digital presence to help them simultaneously stand out as unique while also promoting the company. But more importantly, according to a 2018 report from the Pew Research Center, around 70% of Americans use social media on a regular basis (A. Smith & Anderson, 2018), a resource, which, if targeted correctly, can be a boon for companies to find new consumers while also strengthening current relationships. This blog post provides you evidence-based practices from social science into how to manage paracrisis in the digital age.
“Paracrisis are a reputational threat, a warning sign or prodrome of a potential crisis to come if a change is not implemented.”
How the digital age creates crises for companies
However, while the introduction of digital technologies is a game changer for professionals, it also can be a company and even an employee's worst enemy. Consumers and stakeholders now have quicker access to the ears and companies, and worse yet, even faster access to other consumers to spread positive or negative word-of-mouth. The digital age has created a new culture to counteract the consumer culture of the 20th century, where media influenced mass audiences to advertise and persuade (Diggs-Brown, 2011). Coined in 1992 by Dr. Henry Jenkins, "participatory culture" acts as a counter to consumer culture, arguing that the public does not work as consumers, but rather as prosumers, producing content, engaging with others, and employing the people to do the same (Jenkins, 2013). Jenkins, Purushotma, Clinton, Weigel, and Robison (2005) describe a participatory culture as a culture where members believe that their contributions matter, among many other attributes related to civic and artistic engagement with other stakeholders and publics. Since their contributions mattered, they feel more empowered to voice the opinions and have more access to spread information.
Companies need a crisis management plan in the digital age
Unfortunately for companies, according to B. G. Smith & Taylor (2017) despite the influx of technology, stakeholders are still not interested in engaging with companies. Instead, their research revealed respondents primarily used social media to satisfy information needs and social interaction needs, especially with particular individuals and groups. However, it should be noted that companies may be a secondary inclusion to the initial conversation with sites like Twitter. Because of this consumer engagement and feedback, companies can become inundated with millions of comments per day, and often hire social media managers to sort through the good, the bad, and the trolls. At its most nefarious, stakeholders may locate the professional and personal accounts of employees, if the stakeholders believe the employee is responsible for an issue (Sampson, 2013). Therefore, with this lack of control over image and identity, companies in the digital age require crisis management plans that can start to repair the issues, long before a crisis even comes to fruition. After all, the best way to manage a crisis is to prevent one.
Understanding the paracrisis and its effects
In 2012, Drs. W. Timothy Coombs and Sherry Holladay coined the term “paracrisis,” defining it as “a publicly visible crisis threat that charges an organization with irresponsible or unethical behavior” (p. 409). Unlike a fully defined crisis, like a product recall, protest, or an internal scandal, paracrisis are a reputational threat, a warning sign or prodrome (Fink, 1986) of a potential crisis to come if a change is not implemented. Moreover, while companies are keen to keep crises under wraps as best as possible, paracrises are public in nature, often prompted by stakeholders petitioning the company to act.
Lessons from the Chick-Fil-A Same-Sex Marriage Controversy: Paracrisis can also be an opportunity when managed well
Perhaps the most notable example of a paracrisis is the 2012 Chick-Fil-A Same-Sex Marriage Controversy, where chief operating officer Dan T. Cathy made numerous comments opposing same-sex marriage (Kim, Kim, & Reid, 2017). While Cathy as a private individual was entitled to his opinion, because of his connection to the fast-food chain, consumers and stakeholders questioned the ethics of eating at a franchise that may not have supported their beliefs, creating a reputational threat. The threat was heightened when it was revealed that Chick-fil-A's charitable organization, the WinShape Foundation, had donated millions of dollars to political organizations that were hostile to LGBTQIA+, acknowledging that corporate profits were used. Ultimately, the paracrisis evolved into a full crisis as activists called for boycotts, other corporations including the Jim Henson Company ceased business arrangements, and even political officials stated they would deny building petitions for future Chick-Fil-A's. However, this also prompted many supporters to come to the defense of Chick-Fil-A, hosting a Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day on August 1, 2012. The outcome for the whole crisis was mixed as sales rose 12 percent and the company held a favorable view amongst the public; however, the company declared that the company would no longer comment on issues regarding same-sex marriage, hoping to appease its dissidents and prevent future paracrises.
Strategies for understanding and managing paracrises in the digital age: Refute, reform and refuse
Responding to paracrises involves both strategic and tactical concerns (Coombs & Holladay, 2012). The strategic level identifies what outcome is desired by the organization and what communication strategy can help to achieve that outcome. The tactical level considers what communication resources to employ in the response. Resolving paracrises starts with the strategic level and moves to the tactical level. Strategically, crisis managers can choose among three primary communicative reactions: refute, reform, and refuse. Refute is when management fights back against a claim, reform involves changing organizational practices to reflect the demands, and refuse means ignoring the challenge altogether.
Lessons from the H&M unused clothing case: Consider costs of resources including credibility
When choosing a strategy, the company should consider the cost of resources including money, time, and credibility. For example, in 2010 the clothing company H&M was challenged by stakeholders for destroying unused clothing, rather than donating it, which was a part of the H&M social initiative. Initially, H&M ignored the claim, believing it to be a minor incident (Refuse). However, when the paracrisis continued, and H&M's credibility began to decrease, the company announced it would ensure that the shredding of clothes would not happen again and apologized for the incident (Reform). Fortunately for H&M, the cost for reformation was minimal because donating clothes to the needy already aligned with their policies, however, the initial refusal did damage the company's credibility, which may have also translated to a decrease in sales.
Tactically, it is relevant to remember that despite the ever-growing digital landscape, technology doesn't trump strategy. Coombs and Holladay (2012) advocate that, "there should be a fit between the channels you select and the stakeholders you are targeting” (p. 413).
Be were the action is, be there before the paracrisis appears and be redundant and sprawl
They provide three social media rules for tactically handing paracrisis:
The first is to be where the action is. Respond to the social media platform where the paracrisis first emerged. Stakeholders primarily look toward the specific medium which the incident occurred so if the company does not respond in the same fashion, stakeholders may see it as a lack of response or consideration to the claim. Moreover, stakeholders will view companies as being absent-minded with social media, which can also reduce the credibility of the organization (Laroche, Habibi, & Richard, 2013).
The second rule for handling paracrisis is to be there before the paracrisis appears. On social media, people are voluntarily exposing themselves to messages created by others, both professionally and personally. Safko and Brake (2009) argue that companies should build up credibility and followers by establishing a unique voice in a particular social media medium. Therefore, when a paracrisis emerges, the company can strategically situate itself where it can be most useful rather than haphazardly trying to contain it in a medium that they are unfamiliar with.
Finally, be redundant and sprawl. While platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are trendy among the general population, the study as mentioned earlier by the Pew Research Center indicates that Snapchat and Instagram are standard tools for young adults (A. Smith & Anderson, 2018). Therefore, companies should be involved with multiple social media platforms, and though they should target the social media medium where the paracrisis occurred, that same message should be spread across all their platforms to lead the discourse.
The importance of understanding and solving paracrises
Paracrises are creating new challenges for practitioners and professionals across the globe. Professionals are under significant pressure by stakeholders to identify, assess, and respond to paracrises faster than ever before. However, by understanding what paracrises are and the practices for addressing them will save companies, and their employees' many headaches. Moreover, solving paracrises will limit opportunities for full crises to come to fruition, and can help strengthen stakeholder-organization relationships, which in turn, can provide access to a new segmentation of customers at a minimal cost to the company.
Coombs, W. T., & Holladay, S. J. (2012). The paracrisis: The challenges created by publicly managing crisis prevention. Public Relations Review, 38(3), 408-415. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2012.04.004
Diggs-Brown, B. (2011). Strategic public relations: An audience-focused approach: Cengage Learning.
Fink, S. (1986). Crisis management: Planning for the inevitable. New York: AMACOM. Jenkins, H. (2013). Textual poachers: Television fans and participatory culture (2nd ed.): Routledge.
Kim, K., Kim, J., & Reid, L. N. (2017). Experiencing motivational conflict on social media in a crisis situation: The case of the Chick-fil-A same-sex marriage controversy. Computers in Human Behavior, 71, 32-41.
Laroche, M., Habibi, M. R., & Richard, M. O. (2013). To be or not to be in social media: How brand loyalty is affected by social media? International Journal of Information Management, 33(1), 76-82.
Safko, L., & Brake, D. K. (2009). The social media bible: tactics, tools, and strategies for business success. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Smith, B. G., & Taylor, M. (2017). Empowering engagement: Understanding social media user sense of influence. International Journal of Strategic Communication, 11(2), 148-164. doi:10.1080/1553118X.2017.1284072
Katharine Hodgdon, ABD (Texas A&M University) is an Organizational Communication researcher studying consumer engagement. She has previously worked on projects related to the emotional labor and parasocial interaction of live-streaming content creators, and digital copyright law. Katharine has been interviewed by Kotaku and Anthem Sports and Entertainment. In 2017, she presented her TEDx talk "Playing Video Games is Hard Work" at TEDxLeeCollegeHuntsville, the first TEDx event to be held at a Texas prison.
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