In his 1922 book Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann noted:
“The incidence of policy determines the relation between leader and following. if those whom he needs in his plan are remote from the place where the action takes place, if the results are hidden or postponed, if the individual obligations are indirect or not yet due, above all if assent is an exercise of some pleasurable emotion, the leader is likely to have a free hand.”
I think about that in the context of the oil spill currently underway from the BP Deepwater Horizon rig and how different the crisis would have unfolded in decades past. Even in the past couple of years, technology (particularly social media) has stripped leaders of their ability to keep such phenomena remote and abstract, shielding them from the public.
Now, we can look in directly on the results and feast at an all-u-can-eat buffet of related information:
- A new Google Maps mashup lets one contextualize the size of the oil spill by overlaying maps of related geographical areas
- The Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming has a live video feed of the spill.
- The New York Times has an interactive map application that illustrates the timeline of the spill.
- TheSmokingGun.com has assembled a special gallery of past mug shots of BP employees in honor of the spill.
- Nature Magazine has been blogging regularly about the science behind the spill.
- Political groups like ClimateProgress have been rapidly aggregating the damning evidence that continues to be unearthed about the lack of oversight and safety protocols on the oil rig, in addition to debunking BP’s public relations efforts on-the-fly as they’re released.
- Cafepress.com is already teeming with clothing and accessories imprinted with anti-BP slogans and images related specifically to the Deepwater Horizon spill.
- Twitter is providing people with a platform to disseminate the second-by-second updates on the situation in the gulf.
- A fake BP Public Relations Twitter Account has been mocking the company (via Mashable.com)
In crisis situations, we tend to look to past crises for insight on how a new one will unfold. The problem is, all of the technology and the rapid adoption of social networking platforms has made those past comparisons obsolete. This is true for virtually all fields, but especially public relations which has borne the brunt of the upheaval from the communications revolution. Trying to downplay crises with euphemistic language is deadly, as BP CEO Tony Hayward found out after comments made in past days have come back to bite him.
Anything you can imagine could be a facet of the next crisis your organization faces (even a video game based on your crisis; just wait – some programmers are likely downing cases of Red Bull feverishly coding a BP-themed oil spill video game right now).
One would be hard pressed to make case studies older than a few years relevant today, and yet most PR textbooks still teach the Tylenol recall scare from 1982. If your playbook is older than 2007 – it’s time to get a new playbook.