Why is your crisis plan in a horse and buggy?

The only U.S. presidential digit we used to care about was the one that might some day enter the code to authorize a nuclear strike. In 2017, we really, really care about the U.S. president’s thumbs: The thumbs used to tap out 140-character bombshells that allow the president to talk directly to 33.7 million followers (at the time of writing, it will be more by the time you read this), which is then amplified by retweets, shares and the news media.

If the president is using technology so effectively to get his message across, it’s even odder that professional communicators faced with fast-moving reputation threats are having to rely on old-school systems and tools.

Technology and crisis plans

Where’s your crisis plan right now? How would you access and activate it at 5 a.m. on a holiday weekend? How would you contact, brief and organize the crisis team?

Technology has a huge impact on the way issues evolve and endanger your business and its reputation.

Take 2017’s most celebrated corporate crisis to date, in a year with many similar examples: the United Airlines fiasco when the airline forcibly removed passenger David Dao from that plane in Chicago on 9 April.

United’s initial limp response was completed overtaken by the spread of videos shot by passengers on their smartphones and the subsequent shares and conversations on social media. When United CEO Oscar Munoz woke up on Monday morning, a small bushfire had turned into a raging inferno.

It is also technology that allows those that would disrupt your business the ability to do so by gathering in virtual communities and galvanizing direct action among thousands, if not millions, of like-minded people. Think NGOs, dissatisfied customers, alienated communities and angry former employees.

Nothing is new about the technology that is driving the hyper-speed at which issues become full-blown crises.

Are you using up-to-date technology in your crisis plans?

The iPhone was 10 years old on 29 June. Twitter launched in July 2006. Facebook is even older, having made its public debut in February 2004.

The humble ring-bound binder is a lot older—131 years older to be precise.

Ring binders were invented by Friedrich Soennecken in Bonn, Germany, in 1886. Later that year he also registered a patent for a “paper hole maker,” now known as the hole punch.

All credit to Herr Soennecken. There is at least one walk of life in 2017 where his 130-year-old creation is keeping at bay the power of 700 million iPhones–the storage, access and activation of crisis plans.

To those of us in the business of helping organizations prepare for the worst, it is utterly baffling.

For a long time, investing in an up-to-date crisis plan and the technology to support it was one of those items that every year starts out on an organization’s annual to-do list. But once the hard realities of budget planning hit home, it often does not make the cut.

This led me to believe that it was only in crisis planning that organizations have a technology blind spot.

However, it appears that there is a bigger problem with communicators adopting new technologies.

Communicators’ aversion to new technology

In early July, PRSA released a survey that illustrated that communicators’ aversion to new technology runs deep, for example:

  • Most still use email to communicate, even though barely a quarter of PR folks think it is the best way to communicate externally.
  • Mobile devices have not replaced the computer and more than 60 percent reported that it was hard to reach their company intranet via mobile.

That second point about the over-reliance on the computer and the hard-to-access intranet should send shivers down the spine of crisis managers.

The speed at which an issue emerges, blooms and becomes a full-blown crisis requires a whole different response than in years gone by. Organizations must deploy modern mobile digital techniques and tools in their crisis defenses.

I doubt if even Herr Soennecken would think that after 130 years his binder, stored in a forgotten, dusty shelf back in a locked office on a holiday weekend, is the place where you should have to go searching for a plan when the worst is happening at digital speed to your organization.

Written by Chris Britton for CW Magazine.