Crisis Management Through Stillness, Research Time, 29/12/2014

Last week, I discovered an article on Gawker that intrigued me because of the lesson it offered for me in my training to become a communications professional. Taking this narrative seriously, and I think we should, means that a lot of what I’m learning about proper crisis communications is extremely inappropriate for online media. And it gives further backing to my conviction that a strong communications professional needs deep knowledge of theoretical media analysis.

Gawker Media should not be considered a very reliable
source of news. But it is a reliable source of examples of
how screwed modern digital media is.
First, you should read the article, by Sam Biddle, who is one of the top bloggers at Gawker Media. In late 2013, Biddle noticed some online outrage over a tweet from Justine Sacco, the head of online communications for the IAC digital media conglomerate. As she travelled with her family on a vacation to South Africa, she made a joke about the relatively lower HIV infection rates among white Africans compared to blacks. It was in absurdly poor taste, and Biddle wrote about the tweet at Gawker to increase traffic.

As I’ve written before, the content of digital media tends to a yellow press model: generating as much sensationalism as possible to provoke the highest number of click-throughs because their revenue comes from advertisers paying per page load. Outrage and anger is the most efficient way to attract click-throughs, and so it was to Gawker's benefit (more clicks, more ad revenue) to sensationalize and spread Sacco’s idiocy as far as possible. 

That idiocy spread very well because of how viscerally satisfying it is to hate a stranger online. Sacco couldn’t respond in real time because she was on a web blackout in an airplane flying from the United States to South Africa, a flight that lasts almost half a day. But Biddle's real lesson doesn't just lie in Sacco’s problem, but his own image crisis storm when he tweeted an insult to Gamergaters that made it seem like he believed it was good to bully and beat up nerds.*

Of all the people embroiled in #Gamergate, Anita
Sarkeesian was the one most concerned with the ethics
of video games and games journalism.
* I think nerd culture has a lot to answer for, and that Gamergate revealed a festering sickness in the culture of male hardcore gamers. It was a harassment campaign started in reaction to a rambling, hostile blog post by a man who was angry and resentful about his ex-girlfriend which, while ostensibly about transparency in games journalism, never targeted any journalists. 

Traditional media's channel of information flow moves in a single direction: groups of professional gatherers and interpreters of information (journalists) disseminate reports. Even at the high speeds of the 24-hour cable news cycle, this is still slow enough for some critical thought to enter the final production.

Digital media is a continually roiling stream of new information. My classes call digital media a two-way communications medium, but I don't think this is adequate to the actual flow of content. The relationship between digital and traditional media can be called two-way, because print and television journalists gather information from user-generated media, while digital media users gather their information from journalists. But considered in itself, digital media is omnidirectionally scale-free.

It’s scale free because it organizes the same way the internet does. There are ordinary, small folks who make up the majority of users. They’re mostly consumers, and when they do publish (Facebook or Ello posts, tweets, Instagram shots), it’s usually only personal friends from the physical world or online communities who see them. 

Then there are the people who have more followers than who they follow. As the ratio of followers to following grows, that person has an increasing amount of power to disseminate information. The journalists who work for online media outlets (outgrowths of the traditional media, or all-online venues like Gawker, Breitbart, and Huffington) have prominent positions, but their power directly flows from the strength of their followings. What matters is their place as hubs in a network of information creation and consumption.

Famous asshole Dan Bilzarian is one of the most powerful
people on the internet with regard to the reach of his
following. But he is still just one single voice.
Online media is omnidirectional because communication occurs in any direction among the network's links. Elites (the network hubs) exchange information, but ordinary folks do as well, and sometimes conversations occur between elites and ordinaires. I’m just a guy starting a career in communications who blogs about his writing. But I’ve chatted with some remarkably famous people.**

** Yes, all of them have been in the Doctor Who community, but it still counts. Gareth Roberts thanked me for my glowing review of The Caretaker, and Christopher Bidmead chatted with me over my thoughts about a video he’d linked on entropy as the ground of a physics-based definition of life.

The particular implications of this radically different media organization for crisis communications has yet to break into communications education, at least in my experience. Crisis communications typically revolves around engaging the media as thickly as possible. You engage with every expression of the narrative you want to stop and counter it with your own message and image.

One example that’s come up in my own classes quite frequently is Maple Leaf Foods, whose upfront apology over 2008's fatal listeria contamination at a plant was extremely counter-intuitive for a profession that is ostensibly about controlling public discourse to maintain positive attitudes toward your clients. Their apology dominated all communications from the company, and it played everywhere. 

Yet it did so through a single channel: Maple Leaf, to television and newspaper information dissemination outlets, to an audience of receivers. The receivers could not push their own reactions back through that channel. Although a given network hub in digital media may have an enormous number of followers, it is still one channel, which is equally a receiver as a producer of information. While many people may receive a communication, each of them can reply with the same individual force.

An example of an ordinary journalist tweeting a joke at
a corporate twitter feed, and getting a brilliant convo.
Omnidirectionality at work.
So power over information is ostensible at best, and can always be overrun. Communication power in digital media relies not on mass broadcast, as in the old model, but mass mobilization. But that mobilization is easily distracted simply because there is so much communication in digital media constantly flowing.

In crisis communication, this information flow is combative, and at a very high intensity because every receiver is also a producer whose power as a producer is equal. Each person has only one channel. There is a difference in power only in how many people receive that channel at once. As communicators, everyone is on equal standing.

So the voice of a person combatively disbelieving a crisis communication (a corrective, critique, defence, or new narrative) is just as powerful as the person in crisis. Each move in a combative communication continues the conflict, achieving the exact opposite that the engagement of crisis communications intends.

Hence the final advice. Do nothing. Digital media communication flows moves so fast that the equivalent of dominating the 24-hour cable news cycle is to trend for two hours on Twitter. Have a crisis management message prepared for conventional single-flow media where you can actually dominate a channel, and let the social media storm die down on its own.

They’ll be on to cats, puppies, and the KKK before you know it.

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