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Take 2: Contending with a Viral Video

Apr 12, 2017

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth a billion.

United Airlines stock is tanking – a billion dollars has already been lost – all due to a viral video. While they will probably eventually recover, their opening public relations bid was an utter fail: the statement by the CEO was chilling, and done in the wrong format. So instead of getting in front of the story, they’ve now given late night talk show hosts a week’s worth of material, and Congress an opportunity to grandstand. All of which means the video will get played and replayed for a very, very long time.

Any company can face a public relations nightmare from a viral video. Anyone. Whether your company is Business-to-Consumer or Business-to-Business, ALL companies still have human employees, and humans make mistakes. And mistakes are recorded these days: everyone’s equipped with cell phones and social media accounts, which renders them capable of recording and distributing an error on a blockbuster scale in a matter of hours.

If it happens to your company, the most vital thing in the moment to remember is that you are dealing with a video. You need to act, and you need to act quickly. Even if it does not tell the entire, or even an accurate, account of what happened (and it’s unlikely that it does), it’s essential to remember the images are graphic, easily digestible, and therefore capable of generating a huge emotional response.

Moreover, video travels faster than a 350-word press release ever can, even if it was written by a Nobel Prize winning author. To put it another way, if you’re racing a jet across the country, a horse and buggy should not be your vehicle of choice.

You need to fight fire with fire: you need a movie of your own. Within 24 hours of the viral video. Likely it will be the first in a series. To successfully accomplish that, you need to think like a movie executive.

  1. Hire your principals. Anoint a public relations executive to be the screenwriter and director. A PR rep is trained in telling narratives.
  2. Research and develop your story. If the viral video includes someone who has been physically harmed, reach out to check on their physical status. This isn’t an admission of guilt, it’s being human. Ascertain their condition, express sympathy, and construct a very short narrative. The villain, in your eyes, is the situation, never the individual. After expressing concern for their well-being, your script should emphasize the investigation and a desire for truth, whatever the truth may be.
  3. You need a star for this movie – preferably you, if you’re the CEO. This is showing, rather than telling, your audience that you care. If you know you are too stoic and typically perceived as cold onscreen, you may need someone else, but only if you are truly cold. If you’re afraid you’ll be awkward, that can work in your favor: awkward is human, sympathetic, forgivable, and sometimes even charming.
  4. Dress your set. If you’re doing a press conference, you’ll want to warm up the room in an informal way, because standing alone behind a podium will appear both cold and visually uninteresting. Again, you want your company to be perceived as human, so a great option is to surround yourself with some of your most earnest looking employees. Opt for diversity in choosing them, so everyone in the audience can identify with someone in your company.
  5. Pick your costume. If you’re a guy, consider skipping the jacket and tie in favor of rolled up shirtsleeves. If you’re a woman, wear flats not heels, and little or no jewelry. You want to visually suggest you’re working overtime.
  6. After following your script, allow only a couple of questions. Be attentive when they are asked, compliment them on a good question. You don’t have to have all the answers right now, in fact it’s usually a good idea to say you don’t have all the answers, because that assures you aren’t prejudging the situation and it keeps you flexible. Promise to get to the bottom of this. Finish by reminding the press of your company’s history – you have loyal employees and customers. Basically, a lot of people depending on you, so you owe it to them to be thorough.
  7. Distribute your film. The best version of the story, if all went well, is one from an innocuous news source – it’s instant third party validation.  Come up with a unifying hashtag of your own for the crisis, to accompany your video. That way you can keep track of what comes back and share the stuff that helps you the most.
  8. Consider the possibility that other distribution channels exist as well: your employees, your customers. They’re all stakeholders in your company’s future, with distribution channels of their own, and they may want to help. If they do, and they have a personal narrative that combats the image circulating in the press – perhaps how the company was understanding in a time of personal crisis, for instance -- consider letting them post it, just ask them to use the hashtag. Re-post anything that works, thanking them personally in the post. Don’t demand others follow suit, as that will backfire. And do not reward them with more than a thank you, or again, it will likely backfire. 

Rinse and repeat. Are you finished there? Heck no! You’ve got sequels to make. But if you’ve done your opening PR bid right, you’ve got an audience willing to consider a plot twist: that perhaps your company isn’t the villain they originally thought.

With 16 years of experience in Hollywood, Mayfield PR consultant Kathleen Hannon breaks down what to do in a viral video crisis: thinking visually, acting globally within your PR universe, and combating video with video.

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