A crisis is a defining moment for any brand. From the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill to Boeing’s 737 MAX safety disaster, crises come in different shapes and forms. And while no one situation is alike, a brand’s response sets the tone, swinging toward unfavorable at best and negligent at worst.
Between social media and the 24-hour news cycle, an issue can rapidly escalate, gathering public attention and disrupting the normal course of business. And if left unchecked, the brand’s reputation and financial outlook can sustain lasting damage.
Successful crisis resolution begins with a plan in place before an issue ever arises. This includes anticipating potential scenarios, proactively crafting thoughtful messaging and outlining response processes, with specific roles and responsibilities.
Crises might be unexpected, but they don’t exist in isolation. The context surrounding a crisis, including a brand’s longstanding reputation and documented positions and actions can influence public sentiment when a crisis does occur. Brands are a part of communities and acting as a responsible corporate citizen can cultivate trust and goodwill among consumers that can better position them to weather a storm.
Take, for instance, an industrial manufacturer that is accused of excessive emissions and pollution. Whether these claims are valid or not, an organization with a strong track record as a steward of the environment may fare better than one without such a history to refer back to.
Public knowledge of a brand’s legitimate steps to uphold their values and support and serve their community can shape whether a crisis is perceived as truly representative of the brand, a misrepresentation or an isolated scenario.
There are many ways in which concerns about safety, product integrity, ethics, security, financial issues and more could intersect with an organization’s operations. Identify and understand the factors with the greatest potential for risk for your business, and regularly reexamine those topics as they may change over time and the news cycle may introduce new topics of sensitivity. Geopolitical unrest, global health issues and social movements are just some of the recent forces that may dictate added caution.
Survey not only your business, but your competitors and the industry landscape more broadly as well. This can help you recognize areas of risk and provide early warning signs. Just because an issue emerges with a focus on another brand doesn’t mean that your business is exempt from the impact — if the issue gathers enough attention, interest in the topic can entangle your brand in the conversation too.
As you outline potential scenarios, you should clearly define what constitutes a true crisis for your organization, what audiences you will communicate with and through which channels. This may not be consistent for all crises, as exact circumstances will dictate the particular audience and communication tactics.
Crisis response teams are usually led by the CEO with support from the head of public relations and legal counsel, though this will vary considerably depending on the scale and operating style of your organization. All team members should go through media training and screening, and in the event of a crisis, this is the group of people that should be fully knowledgeable of the situation.
Appoint one senior-level spokesperson to centralize the flow of information to the media and public. Ensure all public statements and information comes from that person using decisive, purposeful messaging. Remember to inform all crisis response team members who the designated spokesperson is and to direct any inquiries or questions that they receive to the appropriate individual.
When a situation arises, the first step is assessing whether you indeed have a crisis on your hands — what do you know and based on that information, does the incident qualify as a true crisis? If so, it’s essential to swiftly take appropriate action, including investigating what happened, monitoring public response, communicating with relevant audiences and following through on commitments to rectify the situation to the extent possible.
Investigate the state of public response to the crisis and note key media players publishing information. Utilize monitoring tools that scour social media, websites and news sources to create a holistic view of current sentiment along with questions from the public and your customers. This will aid in determining the volume and tone of public response, which questions need immediate answers, who you’re speaking to (industries, local communities, etc.) and how to best address these widespread concerns.
Not all crises are front page incidents. Nor does their reach span worldwide or even nationwide. Brands must be responsive to important stakeholders and avoid being portrayed as suppressing information. However, spreading news of a crisis beyond this group and breaking the story across unaffected geographies or industries can risk unnecessary harm. Bad news sticks more than positive news, and in the hands of competitors, it can take off like wildfire. Consider this when determining how to deploy communications tactics.
Leverage the pre-drafted holding statements to prepare a public company statement that includes an acknowledgement and understanding of how this issue impacts communities and consumers. This is your chance to take ownership for company faults or shortcomings and share details on immediate actions you plan to take to correct and/or manage the situation.
Where possible when responding to media inquiries, decline camera interviews — written statements are a safer option that avoids the challenges of verbal miscommunication with sensitive subject matter.
Swiftly enact company policies and procedural changes in response to the crisis to show internal action is being taken. Doing so not only shows initiative to respond to the issue but also provides support to the public and consumers by addressing their concerns head-on.
To review the success and shortcomings of your crisis response, make a timeline of how the crisis developed, what actions were taken to address the issue and in what order. This is your opportunity to go over what you did well and what could have been done better.
Apply your findings to update your crisis communication plan — these are dynamic guides, not static rules — so adjust as needed to better defuse or manage the next crisis. If it never comes, you’re in luck, and if not, you’re prepared.