In a perfect world, emergencies would arrive with fair warning, and we would have time to prepare in advance. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case and crises tend to show up when they’re least expected. We live in a time where information is accessible 24-hours a day and there is an implied expectation of receiving information immediately. Being slow to react to a crisis can be viewed just as unfavorably as not responding at all or providing a rushed response that lacks detail. Thus, having a prepared crisis communication plan is critical for every company.
So what is crisis communication? It can be defined broadly as the collection, processing, and dissemination of information required to address a crisis situation. It aims to contain negative commentary about the brand by ensuring prompt, honest, and informative communication between all crucial parties, both internally and externally. And while the mere mention of a brand crisis can raise anxiety and discomfort in even the most seasoned leaders, there are several actions your team can implement immediately to help shield the brand from catastrophe.
Defining The Threats
There are many types of crises that can occur, including but not limited to product recalls, employee misconduct, a food-borne illness outbreak, natural disaster, customer or employee injury, food tampering, strike, or other service disruptions. Any one of these can be a public relations nightmare and a real threat to a company’s survival if not handled appropriately. Because trouble can come from virtually anywhere, and no company is immune, your team must be proactive in foreseeing these threats before they have a chance to strike.
This is a good place to start when thinking about your tactical crisis communication plan. You will need to map out all the different crises that could potentially exist within your organization, sorted by tiers of severity, and determine who needs to be involved at each tier. For example, a Level 1 crisis (minor) may not require C-suite involvement, whereas a Level 3 crisis (major) will need extensive involvement from many organization members, including those at the very top. Make sure to designate, specifically, which events fall under each crisis tier, so there is no second-guessing when the moment strikes and who should respond.
As we learned in summer 2020, a brand’s social and digital channels are just as susceptible to crises and cannot be ignored when crisis planning. An unexpected event, combined with social media’s immediacy, makes crisis communications and reputation management even more critical. Online platforms allow consumers and media to share their opinions, dissatisfaction, and headlines quickly and to the masses. This factor has significantly raised the stakes of urgency when a crisis occurs.
Part of the early planning process is to develop “holding statements” that can be used quickly in times of crisis to convey the brand’s general position. While fully-developed statements can’t, and shouldn’t be, crafted before the crisis takes place, it’s often a relief for communications teams to have pre-approved statements ready to go so they can focus on the larger needs of the organization in that critical moment. For your social media channels, this may require statements for social posts, responses to comments, blog content, and potentially a landing page on your website to find more information on the topic. Enlist someone from your crisis management team to review these statements and pages frequently, so they don’t become outdated and useless when you need them.
Next, you must identify the official spokesperson(s) and invest in training them thoroughly on how to speak about the brand. This person should be naturally gifted and comfortable with public speaking and must be in a position high enough within the organization to be seen as credible. This could be the CEO, the head of communications, or someone else within the organization. No matter whom you choose, they must be able to command respect through title and their ability to communicate calmly and effectively throughout the entire crisis event. Remember, not everyone is a great speaker, so be mindful to choose wisely. For social media, your crisis planning should include clearly defined roles and responsibilities for the teams who post content and manage community relations on your profiles.
Equally important, make certain everyone in your organization, from interns to top executives, knows who can and cannot speak on behalf of the brand, and more importantly, why. Establish clear protocols for anyone who comes in contact with the public on how to route inquiries to these spokespeople. Remind your teams often of this protocol, as this is one of the quickest points of breakdown when managing a crisis. We cannot stress this enough!
What To Do When Trouble Strikes
You are now well-prepared for the crisis to strike, but what should you do when the moment actually occurs? First and foremost, the brand’s executive team, crisis team members, and PR/marketing agency should immediately be notified of the situation, even if they won’t necessarily be involved in resolving the crisis. This must happen the very moment the crisis event is identified. Initial communication should determine:
- Which tier the crisis falls under
- Whether legal needs to be involved
- Whether employees need to be informed
- If a public response is the best course of action
- If the full, comprehensive crisis communications strategy needs to be deployed
- If additional statements or talking points are needed
It is imperative to gather all available information (both internal and external) on the topic, including any chatter taking place on social media. Use your monitoring tools to track current media coverage and social conversations on the subject, and overall sentiment towards the brand. To make monitoring easier, ensure your keywords, hashtags, and brand tags are all appropriately set up in your monitoring systems.
If deemed appropriate after collecting all the information, the brand should issue a general statement to acknowledge the situation as quickly as possible and offer a promise to follow up with more details as the crisis continues to unfold. Be specific with when the public can expect these updates. If the issue is widespread enough, the statements should also be deployed on social media and digital platforms.
Determining when to deploy crisis messaging on social media needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis. You can determine by how much chatter you see online regarding the topic, what comments are being shared, and when/if you are fully prepared to directly address the issues with your consumers. In some cases, it may be best to take communication offline or in direct messages (DMs) to avoid further attention on the topic on your social profiles. Ensure you have messaging for both cases, some to be a direct response to users within comments and others to direct users to reach out via direct messaging or email if a lengthier conversation is required. If the crisis has gone viral or is drawing a large amount of attention, consider pausing any pre-planned social posts, ads, or influencer content until you can evaluate the appropriateness of that content during the crisis.
Once you’ve made your statements and there is no further immediate action needed, it is time to “ride it out” and let the conversation naturally start to subside. Continue to monitor for additional press coverage and social sharing using your monitoring tools, and review all community engagement related to the topic.
Finally, after the crisis subsides, make a plan to regroup as a team to discuss all key learnings from the event. What went well? What could have been handled differently? What was missing from your crisis plan that would have been helpful to already have on hand? Which messages need to change as a result of this crisis? A thorough recap of the event will help prepare and strengthen the team for the next crisis.
Always Expect The Unexpected
As conveyed above, crisis communications plans help companies, organizations, and individuals adequately prepare for most scenarios and are instrumental in minimizing negative brand perception and financial damages. When handled appropriately, a company’s transparency and response to a crisis can make its reputation even stronger than it was before. The more proactive you are in developing a robust crisis communications plan, the easier it will be to put out the fire.
Need help developing a crisis plan for your company? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.