Almost every company will suffer a PR crisis at some point, whether it’s a major data security breach, a product recall, or negative media coverage as a result of an employee’s ill-judged tweets. These crises are often shared globally across social media, and quickly.
For example, there’s the international offence caused by the Dove ad campaign where they inadvertently showed a black woman turning into a white one, or the rogue tweets from a disgruntled employee at British music retailer HMV using the company’s account to live tweet a redundancy announcement. It’s human nature for us to grab the popcorn and watch the carnage unfold in real time, but for the company involved, the consequences of any action or inaction are magnified by the eagerness of the armchair pundits to analyze and spread panic as a result of the crisis, or point out the perceived shortcomings in the company’s response. How can enterprises navigate through a crisis and avoid lasting reputational damage?
There’s strong evidence of a correlation between how well a company handles a crisis and its subsequent share price, and even its likelihood of long-term survival. Being prepared is key to successful crisis management, and with the speed of response required in today’s social media and 24/7 news environment, it’s more important than ever for a business to have a tried-and-tested crisis plan.
So how can an organization prepare for a situation that’s nearly impossible to predict?
Know your risks
Identifying the most likely crises your business could face is an essential first step to being prepared. There are several pretty common risks that all businesses should plan for:
- Sudden loss of key personnel: Who would make the big decisions? What about access to files or servers? Who would talk to the media?
- Denial of access to a key site (for example, due to an evacuation order or an incident at a nearby location): Could remote work continue without site access? What about phone calls? Are client records and contacts available? Can the business get to its finances if there’s no entry to the site for a few days?
- Regional/global pandemic: Could your business continue operations? How many infected workers would it take to stop operations? If a pandemic is regional, could operations continue from another location? Who else are you relying on to keep your business functioning?
- Reputation risk due to association with a client involved in a negative media storm: How do you react if your number one client is in the firing line for their perceived stance on a political or ethical issue, and you’re dragged into the media storm by association?
But there are also industry-specific risks, such as a large-scale data breach for an IT company (Who would it affect? What data might be stolen? What are the potential consequences?), or a restaurant chain encountering a failure in their supply chain, as KFC experienced in the UK earlier in 2018.
Once you know where the biggest risks lie, you can start by minimizing the probability of a crisis occurring in the first place. The tech company above might put in additional layers of security to reduce the risk of data loss; the restaurant might diversify their suppliers to reduce the risk of another supply chain hiccup. These are hardly dramatic, hero-creating courses of action, and they don’t entirely eliminate the risks, but preventing a crisis is without a doubt better for a business than dealing with an emergency.
Identify roles and control your messaging
A crisis response team should cover operational, financial, resourcing and communications responsibilities, and must have the ability to make big decisions very quickly. The most appropriate spokespeople should be identified early on in the crisis planning process to issue well-crafted statements, whether they be for social media channels, print journalists or TV news networks. In most cases, the CEO of a company is expected to make the statements, but deputies should also be trained in case the CEO isn’t available. While these crisis statements typically stick to a tight script, the demeanor of the spokesperson and the authority and sincerity with which they speak are not lost on the media, or indeed on the wider public. A CEO’s appearance is seen by many as a dynamic representation of their brand values in action, and a lack of empathy for people affected by the crisis can prove disastrous, as former BP CEO Tony Hayward discovered when he made his infamous “I want my life back” comment.
Despite your best efforts, the coverage most widely circulated on social media might not be the briefing you prepared for a particular platform. You might put a video on your corporate Facebook account of your CEO delivering a carefully scripted message, but if a junior staff member or a PR agency acting on your behalf sends out an inappropriate tweet or email at the height of the crisis, guess what will get the most attention. Automated tweets should be turned off immediately, as a crisis will inevitably turn an innocent marketing message into one that appears tone deaf at best.
Adapt to your audiences
In the middle of a crisis, it’s essential to communicate a consistent message across all markets that displays empathy for those affected, while providing reassurance that you’re handling the situation in the best possible manner. At the same time, there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all response. A successful approach in one country might be seen as cavalier or lacking urgency in another, so it’s essential to adapt a crisis plan for different international markets.
When McDonald’s ran into a storm regarding the use of beef extracts in its fries, it aimed its response solely at upset American vegetarians, saying that the company had never claimed the fries were suitable for those on meat-free diets. This response went down very badly among Hindus in India, where windows were smashed and restaurants had to get police protection to remain open. An obscure apology hidden deep in the website did nothing to restore their reputation, and McDonald’s ended up settling a series of costly lawsuits.
Train based on scenarios
The most effective way to prepare for a major crisis is for senior management to practice their response in a simulation. A facilitator creates a scenario that unfolds over a period of time. The management team reacts to each piece of information as it comes in, deciding on their immediate priorities and assessing the best course of action. As the crisis unfolds, new information arrives that challenges initial assumptions and demands a change in approach; at the same time the facilitator turns up the pressure by throwing in media demands for immediate updates, along with misinformation on social media that might be circulating more quickly than the true facts.
An exercise like this helps senior executives get a clearer idea of the ideal composition of their crisis management team and who should fill each role, including responsibility for social media. It also helps them understand the perils of certain courses of action; mistakes will be made and it’s far better to learn lessons in a simulation than in a real crisis. One major consideration will be the point when control of the company’s PR channels switches from the regular team to the crisis management team.
The lingering effect of social media after a crisis
In the event of a crisis, a business has to manage a complex, fast-moving situation and make decisions with far-reaching financial and reputational consequences. In such a pressurized environment in which you’re faced with difficult operational decisions, the social media fallout might seem like a distraction. But make no mistake: long after things have returned to “business as usual,” people will remember how you reacted or failed to react online to criticisms and requests for help. They will remind you of promises your business made in a tweet or post that you published at the time of the crisis, and will quite rightly call you out if you haven’t followed through with those promises.
These days, it’s not a matter of whether, but when you will find yourself in a PR crisis. Sticking your head in the sand and hoping it never happens isn’t an option. Benjamin Franklin famously said that "by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail" and this certainly applies to crisis management. Getting your business ready to face the unexpected will make all the difference in how you maintain your reputation and customer confidence in all your markets.