It can be hard to define, but you know a poorly-handled disaster when you see it: Think of an airline passenger crisis unfolding in real time on social media with no company comment or statement for hours; an apology statement that smacks of inability to fully accept responsibility for egregious actions; press conferences where the unilateral policy of answering questions with “no comment” and antagonism has spawned its own sub-genre of satire.
There are times when optimism saves the day, but we are at a cultural crossroads where it’s time to face a realistic truth: Humans behave badly, and always have. Technology is efficient at exposing behavior and events that were historically easier to conceal from the public.
It’s time to face the probability that your company will be involved in a crisis at some point and, if you aren’t prepared, the damage will be exponentially more difficult to contain. Through our PR/digital marketing firm Snackbox, I have steered clients through all sorts of scandals, from multi-party sexual harassment nightmares to tragic industrial accidents resulting in loss of life. Here’s what works:
First, watch and listen on all media to capture what others are saying about your organization whether there is a crisis or not. It’s certainly not the only way you will learn of bad news, but it’s crucial to monitor the digital noise.
- At the very least, set up Google News Alerts for products, industry terms, company names, C-level executive names.
- Use a platform like TalkWalker in addition to Google News Alerts to cast a wider net.
- Activate streams of automatic monitoring of social media through a platform like HootSuite.
Defining different levels of crisis is the first layer of building your plan. Think through the types of crisis that could happen to someone in your industry. It’s not possible to forecast everything, but use real-world examples from competitors or your company’s history to build a list of possibilities. Rank them in order of severity or impact, like this:
5 – worst case scenario (loss of life)
4 – bad impact on company finances and image with viral or high media exposure
3 – bad news that may be mitigated through company actions and PR efforts, but will take more time and effort, financial impact unclear but probably significant
2 – bad news with media exposure that is swiftly mitigated through company action and PR efforts that have quick results
1 – product failure or other type of individual or internal complaint that is mitigated one-on-one and does not reach media or get viral social media backlash
Plan to Communicate
Accurate and timely communication is your best friend. The best way to do this is through an organizational call tree and pre-assigned crisis teams.
- A call tree is a list of contacts organized in branches. Each branch has a head person, who then contacts everyone on their branch.
- Identify who needs to know what, and when. Core crisis team members can be the CEO, legal counsel, head of marketing and outside consultants like social media and public relations agencies.
Schedule Mandatory Media Training for Key Spokespeople
Every core member of the crisis team needs media training, including the CEO, and it’s not up for negotiation. Media training is typically a few one-on-one practice sessions where a PR consultant walks an individual through potential media interview questions and physicality tips.
Media training covers how to behave in a crisis, including how to show an appropriate level of empathy and authenticity that will come across as genuine. It’s not enough to just repeat the core messages and scripts – a brand representative must seem relatable and human in the midst of addressing the company’s intent and actions.
Potentially going too far with sharing information is the scariest part of being a crisis spokesperson. The legal team will draft a list of things you cannot say to the media. Other lawsuits can come up as a result of speculation, so the legal team won’t want a spokesperson to share a lot of information. Media training will teach you exactly where the line is that must not be crossed.
Learn From Other Companies
Observe the crisis behavior of your competition, government, and even companies in other industries that don’t intersect with yours. Save press release apologies and some of the resulting think-pieces in a swipe file and deconstruct what was good or bad about their messaging. Follow or screenshot the more notable social media threads that crop up as a result of high-profile disasters to get a sense of how brands and individuals respond to allegations or complaints in this format.
Analyzing how other companies navigate their public crises will educate you on what not to do, and occasionally provide you with a template on successful and honest dealing with the bad stuff that is inevitable.
When Crisis Hits, Aim for Swift, Transparent Resolution
Even with a plan in place, there are no guaranteed-redemption tactics in crisis management. There are things that are practically guaranteed to demolish your journey back to goodwill and profitability.
- The worst response is radio-silence or issuing a statement of ‘no comment’. Even if you are processing and gathering facts to inform what actions your company will take, you need to immediately address the situation in a sensitive and compassionate tone.
- Delaying action or resolution is also highly problematic. Gather and verify facts as quickly as possible, then swiftly announce the company’s corrective action, and outline a plan for going forward.
Perform a Post-Mortem
No matter the size of the crisis, always do some due diligence once the dust settles to ensure a few things:
- Does our current crisis plan capture all aspects of the issue we just solved?
- Do we need to make tweaks to our current crisis communications team?
- What did we learn from this crisis that will help us prevent future issues?