The medium and the message

By Jim Preen crisis management director at YUDU Sentinel.

When Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase the ‘medium is the message’ in the early sixties his point was that a particular medium affects the society in which it’s used and not just because of the content or message it delivers. His contention was that the medium shapes and manipulates the message.

He wanted, in his words, ‘to draw attention to the fact that a medium is not something neutral, it does something to people. It takes hold of them. It massages them and bumps them around.’

He could only have dreamt of Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook and the ‘bumping around’ we get from all the other social media that saturate our lives today. But he’s right, the forum in which we communicate can influence the message, perhaps more so now than when he was alive.

I recently saw a jokey example of the medium shaping the message.

  • Nobody is as angry as they are on Twitter.
  • No one is as happy as they appear on Facebook (or have as many friends).
  • Nobody is as successful as they would have you believe on LinkedIn.

We know if we enter the Twitter bear pit there’s going to be participants with anger to burn and if we’re on LinkedIn everything is seen through the prism of business.

David and Goliath

Malcolm Gladwell is a hugely popular writer. He’s the author of the Tipping Point, Outliers and a book called David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.

We all think we know what happened with David and Goliath: against all odds, the underdog, the little guy David, won.

Gladwell thinks we’ve been looking at this Bible story all wrong and says just because David was small and young if you look at the facts, Goliath, not David had the odds stacked against him from the start.

In our terminology David was the disrupter and Goliath, epitomising traditional strength, never stood a chance. Had it been a sword fight, Goliath would have triumphed, but David had no need to go anywhere near the big guy. He had a sling, which sounds a puny kind of weapon, but at the time armies had teams of slingers who were deadly.

The best, like David, were lethally accurate, and Goliath was not a small target. Once David had persuaded the Israelites that single combat didn’t mean sword versus sword, there was only ever going to be one winner.

As Gladwell says, Goliath had as much chance against David as a man with a sword has against someone armed with a handgun.

Twitter the new slingshot

I suppose Twitter is the new slingshot. Big unwieldy organisations, the Goliaths, know all too well not to underestimate the power of social.

So does Twitter manipulate the message? It certainly looks that way. For a start you’re limited to 280 characters, though admittedly you can post a pdf or picture with more words, but the whole idea of this medium is to keep it short and punchy. Interestingly, only 1% of tweets hit the 280-character limit.

Then what about the incoming shrapnel that you’re likely to face if you’re involved in a crisis? Those attacking you, the trolls and haters, can remain anonymous. I often feel it’s like people screaming at you while inside their car, knowing they can say things they’d never normally say, safe in the knowledge that the windows are wound up and the doors are locked. Just the same on Twitter.

I guess the received wisdom is that in an age of information overload a polite request or complaint won’t cut through and only a tweet boiling with rage might get a response.

But for all that, Twitter is a useful tool in an emergency. In a crisis, first impressions are lasting impressions – this doesn’t necessarily mean having all the answers, but what it does mean is having an early presence, so the public knows you’re aware of an emergency and there’s a system in place to respond. Twitter is of course a good place to make this known to your stakeholders.

From a comms point of view, if the public isn’t aware you’re responding to an emergency, then you’re not.

Because of social media the way we communicate has changed. Companies used to put our press statements and expect the media to pick them up and act as a conduit to a wider public. Now we have to listen and communicate with our audiences.

The Tesco horsemeat scandal, where horsemeat was detected in their hamburgers, was a case in point. They were attacked extensively on Twitter but because of the organisation’s size and heft they answered most of the tweets individually – admittedly with much the same message. But how do small firms cope with a barrage of hostile social media?

Successful crisis management is all about prioritisation, so prioritise who you need to talk to and manage expectations. If you can’t respond immediately make it clear why you can’t.

It’s also essential that the media trusts you. If they do, they’ll come to you for comment, if they don’t, they may not and will seek information elsewhere from people or firms that don’t have your best interests at heart. As we used to say: fill the information gap.

Returning to Tesco horsemeat – this also included the medium unintentionally manipulating the message. Just as the story broke their social team posted a tweet: ‘Closing down the office now, we’re off to hit the hay!’ Some people didn’t see the funny side and in fact there was no one in the office, it was an automated post.

Lesson to be learnt: Turn off automated tweets in a crisis.

All available channels

Another hazard we face today is the head spinning range of channels available to us to communicate our messages. The mediums have multiplied.

I suppose email and phone are the most common channels, but then there’s: Facebook chat, Skype chat, Slack, Twitter and LinkedIn. I use all these and probably some I’ve forgotten about.

But because of the plethora of channels I sometimes miss messages which are sent to me on a channel I rarely use. This usually doesn’t matter but, in a crisis, you really need to know your messages are getting through to the right people.

Nuclear emergency

On the 12th January 2020, an emergency mass notification sparked panic in Canada, warning people that staff were responding to an incident at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station east of Toronto. If staff were responding to an incident at your local Sainsbury’s, well OK, but a nuclear incident?

The message was sent to mobile phones, radios and televisions across Ontario through the province’s emergency reporting system.

The alarm was issued at 7.30am and nothing happened until two hours later when a second message was put out saying there was ‘no active nuclear situation’ and the previous message was sent in error.

The false alarm may have been part of a training exercise with the message only intended for people taking part in the simulation. I’ve been running crisis exercises for fifteen years and one of the great fears is seeing your simulation leak into the real world.

When mass notifications have the ability to reach, potentially millions of people, strict protocols must be in place whether during a drill or during a real incident. The medium must be policed.

Here’s some thoughts on that:

  • Alerts must be zoned and only sent to specific groups of people.
  • It must be abundantly clear what message is going to what group.
  • The system must require the administrator to reconfirm their intention to send a particular message before the alert is cleared to be delivered.
  • Business continuity or crisis management plans must set out who has admin access to the system and who has permission to activate alerts.
  • Messages used during exercises or simulations must be ring-fenced and kept away from the main system.

There’s also a cry wolf element to all this. If there are too many false alarms or alerts that aren’t relevant or look like spam, people will lose faith in the system and in the worst-case will start to ignore genuine alerts.

Chat channels

Of all the mediums we use right now, perhaps the fastest growing are chat channels. People are moving away from big platforms and talking together on mobile apps, but chat comes with a health warning. Staff posting inappropriate or commercially sensitive information on chat channels can cause a company serious concern.

Here’s the problem: Social apps (think WhatsApp) are now often mimicked by workplace apps. (Slack, Yammer etc.) Employees drift between the two – one moment chatting with friends, the next talking with colleagues. It’s easy for the edges to blur and for the medium to cause havoc with the message.

Amanda Finch (CEO of the UK Chartered Institute of Information Security) said: “The more consumer-like and informal the experience, the more likely employees are to accidentally let slip confidential or inappropriate information.”

These days business is far less conventional; it’s reflected in the way we dress and communicate. It’s rare to see formal clothing at work; no more suits and ties and at the same time there’s a more casual approach to communication. Where we can’t be laid-back is when it comes to looking after client data or indeed any confidential information.

Looking to the future

In conclusion, it’s not just what we say, it’s the forum in which we say it that determines whether our crisis comms messages are received and understood and ultimately whether our handling of an emergency is successful.

In our warp speed world, how can firms work to maintain trust, when cynicism and a lack of trust is almost a badge of honour among many social media users? How can Goliaths protect themselves from David’s sling?

And secondly, and this came from a discussion with a colleague: The importance of stakeholder mapping. Who are your stakeholders? Companies will come on board and some will leave and what about individuals? People come and go, so check who’s actually in place and whether you have their latest contacts.

In a crisis, a message delivered too late or delivered to the wrong person is a message not delivered at all.

And what if you only run a yearly simulation but your major shareholders or investors have changed or perhaps there’s a new regulator or new regulations are in place?

You constantly have to ask: ‘Who are our stakeholders?’ And you’d better have an accurate answer.

I have a feeling Marshall McLuhan would be intrigued by the astonishing media landscape we’ve created, but his analysis all those years ago still stacks up. It’s not just the message; the medium punches above its weight.

Header image by Gemma Smith, Graphic Designer at YUDU

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