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How to communicate during a technical glitch

by | Jul 16, 2015 | Public Relations

All of a sudden, it seems like everyone is experiencing a network glitch.

Last week, United Airlines grounded all of its U.S. flights for two hours, causing massive delays, over an automation issue. About an hour and a half later, all trading on the New York Stock Exchange was temporarily halted for over three hours because of a technical glitch. And The Wall Street Journal’s digital home page crashed at around the same time.

All of this caused some people to fear a cyberattack or to raise other conspiracy theories.

Network glitches are becoming fairly common events as more operations rely on technology. Just by doing a quick search in the CrisisResponsePro Public Statement database we find this issue affects organizations in all industries. Glitches caused United to ground planes last month, Amazon to briefly sell items for one pence, Starbucks’ registers to crash, and London’s airspace to temporarily shut down.

Organizations need to be prepared to manage the crisis when something—i.e., their service—stops working. Communicating well during a technical glitch requires transparency and timely updates.

Unfortunately, when there’s a technical crisis, companies’ knee-jerk reaction is to say nothing. This could stem from communicators not having a lot of information or not knowing what the problem is. But remaining tightlipped is a big problem.

By saying nothing or very little you lose control of the story and of what people are saying about it. That lack of information will be filled with mostly inaccurate speculation.

Take for example yesterday’s three major outages. The NYSE had to quickly deny it was hacked after halting trading because the Internet was exploding with speculation that there was an elaborate cyberattack on three companies (doubts about the NYSE’s security still remain). Even U.S. Senator Bill Nelsen suggested a cyberattack was underway and advocated for cyber-security reform.

Being silent would have only fanned the conspiracy flames. The NYSE nicely countered that problem by having its president, Thomas Farley, interviewed on CNBC during the halt. We could also follow CNBC reporter Bob Pisani, walking the exchange’s floor, showing that no one was nervous (or didn’t seem so). Both actions went a long way to dispel theories of cyberattacks and cover-ups.

Compare that to United’s two-tweeted response to its grounding hundreds of flights.

“We experienced a network connectivity issue. We are working to resolve and apologize for any inconvenience,” the airline tweeted. It then issued a secondary similar statement with flight-waiver information.

The Wall Street Journal didn’t do much better. It released one statement about its website’s crash: “We are aware the home page is down. Working to be back up as quickly as possible.”

(Not everyone thought the NYSE did a great job. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani criticized what he saw as its lack of transparency, according to PRWeek)

These incidents make clear that providing updates with relevant information is important because network outages affect a lot of people. United’s glitch caused national travel delays for an entire day and the NYSE’s problem caused significant confusion and anxiety.

So how do you communicate when there isn’t a lot of information? Start by acknowledging the problem and informing the public of what you’re doing to remedy it until more information is available.

“(1 of 2) We’re experiencing a technical issue that we’re working to resolve as quickly as possible,” the NYSE tweeted at the beginning of its outage. “(2 of 2) We’re doing our utmost to produce a swift resolution & will be providing further updates as soon as we can.”

The NYSE also tweeted four updates that denied it was experiencing a cyberattack and explained why it suspended trading, on top of having a spokesperson speak to the press. Additionally, Thursday afternoon, it released a detailed statement blaming a software update for the technical problems.

Since technical glitches are going to remain a worry for companies, their communications professionals need to be prepared. Tech glitches should be part of any crisis-communications plan.

Guest contributor, Rachel Gamson, is the content manager of CrisisResponsePro, a Web-based software for facilitating secure, collaborative crisis and litigation communications.

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