Digital keeps changing the game in communications, in ways that go far beyond the obvious.

Even now, after digital media and technology have permeated businesses at every level, they continue to create fundamentally new challenges in the crisis and risk management field. Edelman’s 2021 Connected Crisis Study sheds new light on how significant this shift has become, and how far companies still have to go, to adapt.

New types of crises, new dynamics within crises themselves, and new ways in which they spread — as well as new ways companies must respond — are all key areas of disruption.

Today’s reality is that the old crisis playbook is obsolete.

Digitally-Rooted Crises

The ubiquity of digital technology has introduced and accelerated a new set of reputational challenges, from cyber threats and other online attacks to digital activism, misinformation, and disinformation. All of which is amplified by algorithm-driven social channels, creating new waves of crisis types which are fast-moving and challenging for organizations to manage.

Crises of this nature are becoming increasingly common, and our research shows that business executives expect them to become even more prevalent.

Take activism, for example. While fewer than a third of executives say their companies have faced activism issues from shareholders, consumers, or employees in the last three years, almost three quarters say they expect to face them in the next three years.

In fact, more than half of executives expect their companies will face each of a wide range of digitally rooted crises in the years to come.

Digitally-Driven Dynamics

Companies are also facing new dynamics within existing reputational challenges, and it is clear from our research that this is a struggle. A full three-quarters of respondents say the digital-first landscape is making issues and crises even more difficult to manage.

Chief among their concerns is the sheer increase in speed which digital has driven. Nearly 80 percent of respondents say speed has changed how they must manage crises, and 74 percent say this acceleration worries them.

The growth of digital has also forced businesses to change how they integrate internally around crises. Crisis communications has typically been a cross-functional discipline, but we are operating in a world where many people turn first — or even exclusively — to digital channels for their information. In this context, the tough reality is that the crisis or corporate comms teams often no longer hold the budget for, or control, key channels such as social, web, search, or paid media.

There is some good news from our findings, in that most execs say their company is still somewhat effective in working across teams in a crisis. However, this is still a work in progress — only half of companies involve different functions in designing their organization’s crisis plans, and few believe their company is very effective at integrating with any given function, during a crisis response.

Digital Crisis Tactics

The use of digital tactics in crisis response has been around for a long time now, yet companies still struggle to use them effectively. Despite widespread acceptance of the need to evolve beyond the traditional playbook of media statements and talking points, there remains a big gap between the recognized importance of digital channels and their consistent use in crises. In fact, we saw a 45-point gap between those who recognize social media assets as important in a crisis and those who say their organizations are always prepared to use them. We saw similar gaps between recognition and preparedness for community management (42pts), SEO (42pts) and crisis management features on websites (41pts).

Companies are also struggling to tap into the value of data in their crisis response plans. Again, there is widespread recognition of the importance of integrating data, but only one third of executives say their companies are consistently prepared to use any data source we asked about. This even applies to straightforward media and social media monitoring.

These insights are all the more striking because we’re still talking about very basic elements of digital reputation management — just being able to keep an eye on earned media, social media, and quickly update a company’s website if needed.

Re-examining digital and data integration

In summary, the findings from our research are clear — executives expect to increasingly face challenges rooted in digital, but few believe their company can navigate them effectively.

To address this, companies must re-examine their approach to integrating digital and data in crisis planning and preparedness. Digital thinking must be baked in from the start, not added in as an afterthought. Achieving this requires comms teams to take a rigorously channel-agnostic, stakeholder-first approach to the planning, preparation, response, and recovery phases.

The flipside of these challenges are the huge opportunities digital media and technology have created to innovate the approach to managing crises.

We can access advanced tools and digital signals to get ahead of risks and to make better decisions, we can bring the best of multi-channel strategies to reach stakeholders effectively, and we can use digital tactics to rapidly create, precisely target and then distribute content.

Of course, for some organizations, the biggest question is, where should they start?

The answer is — with the fundamentals. Only by planning and preparing to approach crises with this more modernized mindset will organizations be able to effectively execute when the chips are down. Only then will they be able to take advantage of the opportunities presented by more advanced technologies, to get ahead of today’s Connected Crises.

If you’re interested in knowing more about the Connected Crisis Study, please let us know. We would be happy to discuss the results of the research with you in more detail, as well as how the insights might best be applied to your own crisis efforts.

Dave Fleet is Global Head of Digital Crisis.