As the world becomes increasingly connected via real-time, international social media conversations and the 24-hour news cycle, companies must respond to a crisis more swiftly and strategically than ever before or risk rumors and misinformation taking over the narrative. From a hospital data breach to a power outage to a particularly vocal, unhappy customer, every business across industries is vulnerable to a situation that could negatively affect its brand. No matter the situation, however, there are five steps in strategic crisis communications that any company can take to mitigate and recover from a crisis.
- Get the Full Story
In the event of a crisis, it’s important not to respond too quickly. While it’s natural to want to defend your company, especially if it’s misrepresented, an emotional response could have a negative impact on your brand and reputation. Instead, gather all the facts first in order to respond strategically, honestly and in a way that best minimizes the impact of the crisis. A few questions to consider:
- What actually happened vs. what do people think happened?
- What impact will this situation have on the business?
- Who is talking about the event? Has there been any stories published and/or are customers reacting on social media?
- Is the current sentiment positive or negative?
While these are just a few examples, understanding the full situation in context will help you craft your response. It may also lead you to the conclusion that there is no real crisis at all.
- Identify Stakeholders & Spokesperson
Once you understand the full extent of the crisis, you must then identify whom you must communicate with to minimize the negative impact of the crisis. Though larger companies have these people identified in corporate documentation, this recommendation is tailored to smaller companies who don’t necessarily think of risk as frequently as the enterprise. Because they can positively or negatively affect the business based on their support, it’s important that stakeholders learn about the event directly from the company and not the media. Stakeholders can include board members, customers, employees and investors.
In addition to stakeholders, a company must designate a spokesperson to be the person to speak for the company to ensure consistency and avoid misrepresentation. While the CEO can serve as the company’s representative, and certainly should in highly-sensitive scenarios, because communication skills are essential during a crisis, he or she may not necessarily be the best person for this role. When selecting the spokesperson, in addition to measuring public speaking ability, it’s important to consider how the public will perceive them. Will they appear sincere? Do they look credible? Trustworthy? These are only a few traits to consider when determining the person that will represent your company, address the public and effortlessly answer both planned and unexpected questions surrounding the crisis at hand.
- Develop your Response
While consistency in message is critical, so, too, is transparency during a crisis. According to Bruce Condit, VP of Allegiance Capital, “nothing generates more negative media coverage than a lack of honesty and transparency.” Therefore, to avoid rumors or negative coverage, be upfront about the situation, apologize if necessary and address how you are handling it. Of course, corporate messaging and positioning should be strongly considered when drafting your response, as well.
It should go without saying, but if there is in fact a crisis, not offering a response at all is unacceptable. According to Kellogg Insight, “ companies that offer “no comment” or react defensively not only may be harming their brand, they could be driving consumers away from their products in ways they never imagined.”
- Deliver Appropriately
Now that you’ve realized the full extent of the situation, identified the key individuals that will be affected and those that can serve as your support system, and developed and approved your response, you must also identify the right communication channels to deliver your message. According to Dr. Eric McLuhan, in summarizing his father’s Medium is the Message theory, “Each medium, independent of the content it mediates, has its own intrinsic effects which are its unique message.” Because the medium in which a message is communicated can influence how it is perceived, it’s crucial to be selective with your channels to ensure your response is received as intended. While social media can be a great resource to communicate with media and the general public, key stakeholders like investors and board members should be contacted directly. Once again, being upfront and honest about the situation will be perceived positively and can even enhance your relationship with stakeholders by building trust.
After communicating your response to stakeholders, media and the general public, proactively monitor media coverage and conversations on social media. Doing so allows you to gauge the status your company’s brand perception post-crisis and address any false allegations in real-time. Setting up Google alerts or utilizing media monitoring services, for example, sends media clips directly to your inbox based on identified keywords. Monitoring your company’s notifications and conversations on social media allows you to respond appropriately and own your narrative. In fact, monitoring media and conversations can allow you to identify future crises in real time and get a jump on response efforts.
If you follow these steps, the crisis should subside and your brand will recover swiftly. Once it does, it’s essential to learn from the event in order to be better prepared in the future.
Of course, you don’t have to do this alone. PR agencies have seasoned professionals on their team who have undoubtedly encountered similar crises with other clients. In fact, our #AoA has a combined 45 years of crisis communication experience, and are only a tweet, email or phone call away.
Caroline Cassidy is an account manager for AR|PR, where she has created multiple industry thought leaders, developed corporate messaging, provided executive visibility and social media strategies to the company’s cybersecurity and data center clients, and has even helped a nationally-ranked healthIT company redefine its B2B sales strategy. Caroline was recognized as a finalist for the Technology Association of Georgia’s 2015 Up & Coming Marketer of the Year Award.