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Is there such a thing as a golden hour in this digital age?

25th March 2013

Decades of technological development have changed the shape of our media world. The era of black-and-white, hot-metal presses first made way for colour printing. Then came the advent of the mobile phone, the worldwide web, the social media revolution and tablet-media channels. All have helped, at different stages, to change the size, shape and scope of the communications challenges facing each and every individual and organisation today … not least when the proverbial “hits the fan“.

For anyone with a brand and reputation to protect, preparedness for bad news has never been more important. Planning ahead can involve the removal of public protocols on personal Facebook accounts to preparing for the worst imaginable crisis that could impact a business. Taking steps to deal with the repercussions of incidents, accidents and plain old cock-ups has never been more vital.

Why the urgency, you may ask? Well, in this digital age time has never been in such short supply. US business magnate Warren Buffett was ahead of most of us when he said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently“. But do we have even five minutes now?

Traditionally, when it came to the early stages of tackling a potential crisis, experts talked about the "golden hour": the time available to an organisation to get its key people together, establish what facts were known and agree a way forward, issuing a first public confirmation that an incident had indeed occurred. This approach is now under threat. 24/7 news providers and online information sources mean you may no longer have the luxury of sixty minutes' breathing space before taking action. With blood pressures boiling, company executives demanding immediate answers, the media baying for comment and Twitter all of a flutter, clear and incisive positions are required.

In today's world, communications managers must carry out some form of advance planning. Even if events unfold in an unexpected way, it's far easier to adopt existing procedures to suit your needs instead of searching for inspiration from a blank sheet of paper.

It may seem a little premature to sound the golden hour's death knell. You can't always solve every worrying issue by jumping straight in and initiating communications across a wide range of different channels. Jump in hastily and issue a rash public statement or implement a poor strategy that will prove inappropriate or incorrect and you can end up doing far more damage than you set out to solve.

Everyone has seen instances of online conversations and rumour-mongering that, left unchecked, have rapidly spiralled out of control. On the other hand, acting quickly carries risks too. For instance, are you in danger of over-reacting? For a large organisation to come down hard on a little Joe and you've created a “David vs Goliath” nightmare. Also, a rapid response may catch colleagues off-guard, so causing confusion, mixed messages and ultimately increasing the possibility of significant reputational damage. Leap to issue something externally without thinking about engaging with your people and you've lost a vital audience that would hopefully aid your defence, not least when facing direct your customers, suppliers and other stakeholders.

Even if the golden hour's furthest limits are under threat, don't jump too quickly. The most experienced communications professionals appreciate that no single solution exists for every situation. More often than not, they'll take time to discuss their thoughts and fears with trusted advisors. Why not do the same? A five-minute conversation with someone who has a different perspective on the issues you face, such as a communications agency or a non-executive director, may just help you to avoid turning an issue into a crisis, and a sleeping problem into a real life nightmare!

David Wilson is group managing director of Bell Pottinger

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