If you own a business, you probably have spent the past year or two being told to embrace YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and all the other outlets that put your virtual presence among millions of potential friends and customers. And you probably have been told to encourage word-of-mouth among those who find you online.

And that is a good thing. Companies certainly have benefited from people connecting with their friends to talk about how tasty your sandwiches are or how good your customer service is. But how do you deal with a public relations nightmare in a notoriously hostile environment like the Internet? With instant access to thousands, online friends and followers can spread many an unkind word around the world before you even know you have a problem.

Crisis management in a wired world takes a certain balance of action and reserve. On Thursday, February 3, #b#Cynthia Cherrey#/b#, vice president of campus life at Princeton University, will present “Crisis Management In a Networked World” at the Princeton Chamber. The meeting takes place at 11:30 a.m. at the Princeton Marriott. Cost: $65. Visit www.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.

Before taking over at the Office of Student Life in August, Cherrey was the dean of students and vice president for student affairs at Tulane University in New Orleans, where she was praised for her response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Tulane suffered $650 million worth of damage and was forced to close for a semester after Katrina. Cherrey worked as part of the senior leadership team on recovery and renewal efforts.

In an interview with a Tulane campus publication, Cherrey said that in response to Katrina, the university looked at its own survival, then moved onto the recovery phase. “We hired a reconstruction firm that has experience with other disasters including 9/11 and the hurricanes in Miami,” she said. Once the crisis was managed, she said, the school began to rebuild for its future.

Outside of disaster response, Cherrey taught business and politics and was responsible for housing and career services, student employment, dining services, campus life, multicultural affairs, and the creation of the student resources, violence prevention, orientation, and parent programs at Tulane. Last spring Cherrey was named to succeed Janet Dickerson at Princeton.

A native of Minnesota who grew up as one of eight children on a family farm, Cherrey is the first in her family to go to college. She holds a bachelor’s degree from St. Cloud State University and a Ph.D. in communication studies from the University of Denver.

From 1989 to 2003, Cherrey worked at the University of Southern California, serving ultimately as an associate vice president for student affairs and as a clinical associate professor in the Rossier School of Education. She led undergraduate courses in communication studies and graduate courses in educational administration and policy.

While public relations issues typically do not qualify as disasters in terms of physical devastation, response to crises needs to be handled with a similar focus on the bigger picture. Public relations professionals have been aware of the potential trouble generated by online media for a decade. The Public Relations Society of America avers that there are five core beliefs that must accompany crisis management in the wired world.

#b#Prepare#/b#. Companies have to be ready for threats that emerge through online social networks, but how? The PSRA recommends that before setting up your online presence, be aware of how networked you actually want to be and lay the groundwork for your company’s mission. Companies need to know their real audience (i.e., actual customers and direct users of the company’s online media) and how they are perceived at large. PSRA recommends building and maintaining relationships with your real audience well before trouble strikes. This way, if you are true to the company’s mission statements and values, your audience will be more inclined to ride through trouble.

#b#Patience#/b#. Given the speed of technology these days it might follow that when disaster strikes a company must leap into crisis mode immediately. But while the PSRA acknowledges that speed matters, it also acknowledges the old adage that haste makes waste.

First off, be aware of where the “noise” is coming from. Is your company in the news, like, say Toyota was, for a legitimate safety issue? Or are bloggers blasting you on their own sites? If so, ask yourself who these bloggers represent. A response to someone who hates you and says so might actually generate a bigger problem.

#b#Keep your ears open#/b#. Feedback online is instantaneous, ubiquitous, and as diverse as it gets. Everyone has something to say about everything, all the time.

But again — who is doing the talking? Is the feedback coming from your core customers? Your target demographic? Some guy with a Facebook page who has never even been to your website? There is a difference between legitimate feedback and an agenda. So while it is good to monitor the din, it its better to monitor it with some reserve.

A good example of how a company responds to a PR dilemma is Taco Bell. In January the restaurant chain was sued by an Alabama law firm that claimed Taco Bell’s seasoned beef was not real beef. The chain responded with full-page ads in major papers and an online press release campaign that cheerfully stated, “Thank you for suing us.” The suit gave Taco Bell a reason to talk about its product and spoke in a direct, non-threatening way to its customer base. And its use of clear, yet strong, language, detailing that the chain’s seasoned beef is real, actual beef, falls into line with the PSRA’s next recommendation.

#b#Talk like a person#/b#. Nothing short-circuits a PR attempt faster than corporate-speak. Social networks, says the PSRA, are no place for press releases and boardroom soundbites.

It is important, according to the PSRA, for the company to have a clear, authoritative, and human voice when crises strike. A lot of companies have placed the “young-and-hip” in charge of social network response, simply because the young and hip know how to navigate it. However, PSRA advocates knowing the difference between having someone who gets followers to your Twitter musings and someone who can speak for the company when something goes awry. Make sure whoever does the talking can espouse your company’s values and ideals while still getting through the online noise.

#b#Consistency#/b#. Crisis management is not a one-time deal. You don’t just say “Oops” and move on. Addressing your crisis with online audiences is not a one-time event — these are relationships that need to be maintained.

Online response to a crisis hinges on the online world’s interest in finding out more about your company, and how comfortable the company is online, according to the PSRA. Your company might have a widget recall, and you will get the word out. But when you do, know when the crisis is over (and stop talking about it until it comes up again), know how interested people are in finding out about you, and know whether they still care to talk about the issue once the recall is over. Like trying to address online feedback, trying to stay in touch after a crisis can just end up alienating people.

The best approach is the first approach — build relationships with your customer base and maintain it. If disaster strikes and the wired world lashes out, you will be in a better position to handle it, because your true friends have been with you the whole time.

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