How outrage culture changes the rules for crisis management

David Gordon and Paul Lawton share tips for successful outrage management

David Gordon

Outrage is our new favourite pastime, a blood sport now enjoyed by millions of us on a daily basis, fuelled by social media. We are no longer yelling at our screens; we are yelling with our screens.

For brands and organizations, this outrage culture presents risk and uncertainty. A 2014 study by the international law firm Freshfields, reports two-thirds of all social media-fuelled crises spread internationally within an hour, and were in the media spotlight for over a month. The current crisis management model of building detailed response plans seems outdated in light of the intensification of outrage culture. We see outrage on social media, fear being on the receiving end, and pray it doesn’t happen to us. There has to be a better way.

Instead of analyzing the patterns of outrage culture, we focus on the details from one scandal to the next. A recent example is when the majestic Cecil the Lion was killed by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer. Even though this event occurred a couple weeks ago, we already struggle to remember the details. Remember when Palmer’s history of sexual harassment hit the news? How about when Jimmy Kimmel was so moved about the lion that he cried on live TV? Remember the New York Times opinion piece from the man who lived in Zimbabwe and said it was weird everyone was freaking out over a lion because lions are terrifying to most people who live near them?

Chances are good that a dense fog hangs over your memory, and you are not alone. Inside the storm outrage seems fierce, devastating, chaotic and all consuming, but afterwards we seldom issue post-mortems on what we learned. Surveying the damage caused by these storms are instructive because the consequences of the fallout seem random and we need to be better prepared to deal with a highly informed public.

Much time is spent developing a crisis response plan that is ill-prepared to battle outrage, and may in fact make things worse. Could you imagine Palmer coming forward with an apology on Facebook or Twitter during this period? The public would have gone wild, and it would have been like throwing water on a grease fire. Which leaves us to the bigger question: how do we prepare our clients to cope in this climate?


Paul Lawton

We start by stepping back and analyzing the pattern of outrage. Last year, Slate tracked what everyone was outraged about every day in 2014, and found an example of public outrage bubbling on a daily basis. Even though the topics change, an overall pattern of the outrage lifecycle emerges.

The outrage lifecycle more or less looks the same. A controversy hits and the public piles on. After a day or two, this piling-on becomes news itself, which results in further intensification of anger. This anger, now white-hot, splinters into factions of people who are still angry and people who are angry at those who are still angry. A public apology is issued, and often a collective sigh of “Why are we mad about this when there is X in the world?” The public is exhausted, but memories are short and the cycle starts up again.

James Hamblin’s recent piece on Cecil the Lion in The Atlantic was able to articulate why the outrage mechanism works so well: “Few people stepped in to suggest that the fury, the people tweeting his home address, might be too much. That argument wins no outrage points.” The idea of scoring “outrage points” is crucial from a crisis communications standpoint because it has effectively changed the rules of the game. If people are scoring points off your attempt to minimize crisis, it can be impossible to do anything but wait out the storm. More than whatever issue is at hand, the outraged are drawn to the rush of worldview validation.

Analyzing patterns of outrage, we find public anger is frequently the result of a well-timed strike, a strategy employed by organized groups and activists to compel a public to act. Outrage is deadly effective in the short term from the point of view of the individuals or groups employing this strategy. Once the outrage spreads and allies are enlisted (mostly individuals looking for the dopamine rush from scoring outrage points), the possibilities for change are great.

Outrage has driven a host of social changes. The effects are as varied – as the entertainment media’s immediate embrace of Caitlin Jenner’s coming out – to the news that Sea World has faced an 84% decline in attendance due to the Blackfish documentary. Avoidance of public shame and anger is a key motivator in changing behaviour – everything from accepting new gender-neutral language to boycotting a company with questionable ethics in regards to animal captivity.

The most effective crisis management strategy becomes learning the outrage mechanism, staying on top of cultural trends and avoiding public outrage all together by understanding audiences in order to get a sense of friction points between a brand or organization and the public. Friction is generally the starting point for most cases of outrage.

Any strategy that enables us to act pre-emptively will go a long way to reduce these new sources of risk and with a values-based approach, organizations can more easily detect, monitor and intervene before friction becomes full-blown outrage. The truth is that the only unpredictable elements of outrage culture are the consequences.

Here are three steps for successful, pre-emptive outrage management:

  1. Understand your audience beyond demographics. To avoid outrage, you must first know your audience inside and out. Audience demographics do not provide the rich, qualitative insights needed to fully avoid outrage. Performing audience ethnography can be one tool to uncover the motivating values and pain points that will pay dividends in crisis mitigation and the development of communications strategies.
  2. Outrage analysis. Forget the details of who said what during a period of public outrage; study the patterns of outrage within your field over the last three years. What are the common friction points with this specific audience? How often does friction develop into outrage? How long, on average, does outrage last? Was the issue resolved or abandoned temporarily? Most importantly, are there changes that can be implemented internally to avoid making the same mistakes as your competitors?
  3. Implement a friction-monitoring plan. Most organizations have social media listening programs, but few are filtered through motivating values. Monitoring should be predictive and provide strategic foresight to avoid headwinds. Knowing what your audience is saying about you, seeing trends in sentiment and monitoring velocity about specific topics can help you get ahead and potentially mitigate an outrage scenario.


David Gordon is managing partner at Cohn & Wolfe Toronto and chair, Canadian Council of Public Relations Firms

Paul Lawton is a senior counsellor of digital, strategy and insights at Cohn & Wolfe Toronto

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