Most people aren’t fond of snakes. But 238,395 tweeters love the New York City’s Bronx Zoo Cobra. The zoo temporarily lost one of its Egyptian cobras last week and an anonymous and extremely creative, astute person made the snake reappear on the popular social networking site, Twitter. The snake, which took on the name @BronxZoosCobra, was busy tweeting away its fictional NYC tour.

The snake’s hilarious updates won over fellow tweeters; so much that it garnered the attention of traditional media. This innovative idea has brought on great opportunity for the snake impersonator. The New York Times and TIME have already interviewed the person behind the snake.  And who knows what else is in store, maybe a TV interview or book deal? Or maybe even a job as a professional tweeter for the Bronx Zoo?

There is much we can learn from this impersonator. He or she was able to take a crisis and turn it into an opportunity. Clearly, all crises cannot be transcended into opportunities. One crisis does not fit all, which is why much care and forethought must be brought in when choosing to use a crisis for opportune purposes. An unsuccessful attempt, described in my colleague’s post, was made by Kenneth Cole earlier this year. In the case of Kenneth Cole, he was using the situation in Egypt to promote his spring collection. This is what put people off and turned the situation into a PR nightmare.

The crisis referenced and opportunity at hand has to align with the organization. Picking the wrong crisis can have monumental consequences that can negatively impact a corporate or individual’s reputation. PR Professionals need to first think of the business objective and see if the opportunity would help meet this end.

The BronxZoosCobra is a good case study to examine as it successfully exhibits turning a crisis into an opportunity.

When appropriate, you can also turn a crisis into an opportunity by:

  • Keeping abreast of current events and understanding your industry- Constantly review the news, social media and newest trends. Some crises happen immediately and others happen over time. As a PR Professional, you should keep yourself aware of what’s going on. That way you will know when and how to react. The snake impersonation would have never worked if it was done after the snake was caught.
  • Understanding the severity of the situation at hand- Different situations call for different things. Make sure what you do is appropriate and is right for your organization. Be sure that the tone is on point and represents the sensitivity of the situation. The BronxZoosCobra twitter account worked because the snake was only missing. If the snake had escaped and bit a child then this idea probably wouldn’t have been suitable.  If the crisis is severe it is best for a qualified organization to take on the role of a thought leader or advisor. During an overwhelming crisis organizations should use discretion and not engage in over self promotional activities.
  • Being thoughtful – Know what will work for your industry and look for opportunities to be creative. Don’t self-aggrandize but ask what will catch people’s attention? What will make you, or what your organization has to say, stand out? Think of how to communicate in a way so that will resonate in peoples’ minds. Taking on an identity of a snake online is certainly a unique and memorable way of getting your voice heard.
  • Targeting the right audience- Who are you trying to reach and why? What perspective or advice can you offer them and why would they be interested in it? What is the benefit to this audience? Once an appropriate audience has been identified, the PR Professional then has to understand where this audience gets their information. Is it traditional media: print, radio, or TV? Or is it social media: Twitter, Facebook or Linked-In? One of the fastest and easiest ways for the snake impersonator to get his or her voice heard was through social media. Twitter provided the medium to tell a funny relevant story as well as reach a broad audience.

So the next time a crisis arises, don’t only think of how to manage it but also think of how to leverage it. And pay attention! Look at your competition’s crises and see if you can use their messes to your advantage. Who knows, if done right you can end up being a local or national sensation.