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Update your crisis plan. Now!

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If you haven't visited Change.org yet, you should do so. Now. This online petition site is causing problems for some major brands, and it's only just building up a head of steam. Anyone can post a petition about anything on Change.org; and, while some causes may appear trivial, many address big issues like human rights, environmental responsibility and corporate ethics. Banks, airlines and retailers are favorite targets. Change.org maintains an impressive list of victories on its home page, including b-to-b successes. For example, Scholastic Inc.'s decision last year to scale back corporate sponsorships of classroom materials was in large part driven by a Change.org petition. The site provides detailed instructions on how to promote campaigns through social media. The largest petitions have gathered more than a half-million signatures. Nearly all have companion Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. Change.org is part of a growing number of customer advocacy sites, product-rating engines and Facebook pages that are driving the growing trend toward angry customers taking their complaints public. They're making crisis communications a top marketing priority. Two-thirds of global chief communications officers surveyed earlier this year by Weber Shandwick and Spencer Stuart said crisis management is a necessary prerequisite for success. That's double the percentage of five years ago. More than 70% of the 142 respondents to the most recent survey said their companies had experienced a reputation threat in the past two years. The growth in attacks driven by hash tags and Facebook pages has outstripped the ability of most companies to keep pace. In an analysis of 50 social media-driven crises published last summer, Altimeter Group concluded that three-quarters of the events could have been prevented or diminished with better response plans, yet more than half of the companies that suffered a crisis had no such process in place. You may have a crisis plan from a decade ago gathering dust on a shelf. Throw it away. In today's caffeinated online world, a single customer's gripe can become a full-blown reputational disaster in just a few hours. If you do nothing else, set up some basic listening posts using free tools that monitor the Web and the tweet stream. Better yet, stake out your own presence in the social channels you'll need when a crisis erupts. Build relationships with bloggers and video podcasters who influence your customers. You'll need their receptive ears when you're under attack. Don't wait. The worst time to start planning for a crisis is when your hair is on fire.
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