Inaugural speaker series gathers top digital, crisis communicators

Crisis communications in the age of social media was the topic. Stephen Marino and Chris Jones were the experts.

Speaking to advertising and public relations students and faculty on behalf of the Gwyn David Speaker Series, Marino, president and chief strategy officer at DC-based agencyQ, and Jones, vice president of Pierpont Communications in Houston, shared their stories of how they integrate social media into clients’ crisis communications plans, often with interesting results.

In April 2010, BP's oil well in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing 11 workers and unleashing the nation’s worst offshore environmental catastrophe. At the time, Marino managed the team that was responsible for the social media response.

“How do you rebuild trust in a company that’s basically lost it for the entire world?” Marino asked the audience both in the Dean’s Presentation Room and online watching a livestream on the SRS’ YouTube channel. “One of the big buzzwords in the past three, four, five years in the PR world has been storytelling.”

During the crisis, Marino and his team used a seven-pillar content strategy, ranging from environmental restoration to economic development, to tell BP’s story of what the company was doing to rectify the problem it had created. And by most measurements, the strategy was successful.

After the crisis, the company continued to rebuild its reputation by sponsoring the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Although a British company, its social media presence was pro-Team USA, which further redeemed the troubled corporation among its American audience. 

Five years later and BP is riding high on its stellar reputation built on the stories crafted from the seven pillar strategy, right? Not so much, said Marino, who no longer works with BP. The company has chosen to focus on the pillar about the fund established for natural resource damages, state and local response costs, and individual compensation by pointing out alleged fraudulent claims against the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Trust.

“Every one agrees that fraud is bad, but how they approach the messaging,” Marino said. “This is who BP wants to be – finger pointing and punitive. They’re not taking the high road.”

Going negative is not a social media strategy endorsed by Marino or Jones. What they do endorse is that businesses have all their social media ducks in a row before a crisis occurs. But, as Jones noted in his presentation, this is a strategy not always embraced by management.

“Sometimes the social media component is not even in the same room with the crisis communications plan until something happens,” said Jones, who represents clients in the energy industry. “As the crisis team, working with company management, you develop the key messages that are then going to inform all of the stakeholders. Right in the middle of that is the social media interaction.”

And as social networks continue to grow as the preferred platform for breaking news, they also gain credibility as a legitimate news source.

“The question being asked now is ‘does this [crisis] have potential to go viral?’” Jones said. “The first story out sets the factual baseline for how future stories shape up. Stories take shape with a hashtag.”

To watch a summary of the presentations, please visit the SRS YouTube channel here: Click below to download Marino and Jones’ presentations:

Steve Marino's Presentation

Chris Jones' Presentation

The Gwyn David Speaker Series was created in honor of the late Gwyn David, a 1979 graduate of the College of Communication. David was senior vice president and media director of GSD&M, an Austin-based advertising agency.

Kristen Roman