Crisis Communication: What to Do When the Worst Happens

Holly Hunt
Holly Hunt  |  October 18, 2018

Something terrible has happened.

Your company’s CEO made a racist remark, a product is hurting consumers, somebody liked a homophobic post from the company Instagram account, or an on-site accident killed people.

These are nightmare situations, but the reality is, they happen. Huge brands like Volkswagen, BP, Tylenol, FIFA, Chipotle, Papa John’s and Lance Armstrong have dealt with various PR crises such as these.

 Sometimes there are bad apples in leadership, avoidable mistakes during product production or a rogue employee. It doesn’t need to be disastrous for your brand. It’s all about how your company handles the situation - and the handling of it begins before the situation even arises.

Don’t make the mistake of falling into the “it won’t happen to us” mindset. You’ll be kicking yourself when it does happen and you’re scrambling to find a quick fix (which, more than likely, doesn’t exist). You need to prepare and you need to do it now, while all is quiet on the homefront.

This preparation and your response during the crisis are called:

Crisis communication

Imagine your brand as a ship sailing across an ocean of possibilities in search of success. One day, due to a series of unfortunate events, you collide with an unforeseen metaphorical iceberg. It’s a crisis situation. You’re sinking fast and everyone on board – your employees and stakeholders – are panicking.

To avoid people jumping ship, playing the blame game or just straight-up shivering helplessly in the cold, you need to have a plan ready to set into motion.

Unlike the Titanic, which was thought to be “unsinkable,” your brand doesn’t need to meet a tragic end.

Here’s how to prepare your company and your public relations team for any crisis that may rock the boat.

Pre-crisis

The water is calm, the sun is shining and it’s smooth sailing. As tempting as it is to kick back and enjoy a daiquiri, use this lull to prepare for rougher seas.

crisis-management

 
Here are the crisis management steps to take in advance:

Gather a team

These are the people who will be ready to act when something not ideal occurs. It should include public relations professionals, internal corporate marketing folks and top executives - or at the very least, the CEO.

Brainstorm potential crises

You may have already done this part if crisis communications is included in your PR plan. If not, gather your identified team and create a list of all the mishaps that could happen. Anything from natural disasters to product malfunctions should be considered. Take a moment to think about where your company is vulnerable and how that could be exploited. This exercise may be uncomfortable - we in PR always want to drink the positivity kool-aid - but it is necessary.

Establish monitoring procedures

Someone on the team should be monitoring social, print and digital publications every day to seek out any bad press. A quick Google search and social media sweep should be plenty. I also highly recommend setting Google alerts, which catch most things and don’t take up anyone’s time. Having these monitoring procedures in place will help you know immediately when things hit the fan. They will also help you keep track of where the fires are (which social or traditional channel) that you need to put out when your reputation is being threatened.

Create placeholder messaging

Look at the crises you wrote down. Think about a response for each. Of course, these will have to be tweaked to be more specific when a certain situation arises. But doing this now will expedite the process so you won’t have to frantically start from scratch.

For example, if something happened that has put people in danger, such as an armed shooter (terrible to think about, I know) or a natural disaster, a placeholder response you could prepare in advance would be:

“Our crisis response plan is in motion, and the health and safety of our guests and staff is our highest priority.”

That’s a great start, at least. Announcing this on social channels immediately after the crisis lets everyone know you are aware of the situation, actively responding, and you’re thinking about the victims first.

Identify stakeholders and build support

This should be a constantly ongoing process. Your stakeholders are not only customers and investors, but also your employees. Make sure you are cultivating a great relationship with stakeholders throughout the year, so when something goes wrong you can count on their support - not for them to mutiny. If you have a wonderful culture filled with happy employees, chances are they won’t speak poorly of the company to customers, friends, family or social media followers even when the chance arises. Don’t forget that employees are your biggest brand ambassadors!

Train your team and spokespeople

You’ll want your CEO and leadership team to undergo media interview training at least once a year. During that training, have them practice responding to uncomfortable questions or imaginary crises. Some executives will be better suited to in-person communication than others, and that’s okay. Only in rare cases does the CEO have to be the company spokesperson.

You should also go through media training with any customer-facing employees. Again, if something goes wrong, they may be the ones fielding questions from customers about what happened. You want them equipped with the right language and tone, and not just blowing air or going rogue. Practicing beforehand will help if they are put on the spot in the future.

During the crisis 

It’s happened. The day you hoped never would come has arrived and it is bad. Your brand is being dragged through the mud on social, people are jumping to conclusions on what exactly happened and maybe even stock is plummeting.

crisis-communication

In short, you’ve hit the rocks and are sinking.

But don’t panic, you’ve prepared for this! Now it’s time to put your plans into action and repair the damage.

Assess the situation

This has to be done quickly because, as you’ll see in step two, you should respond almost immediately. Luckily, if you’ve done the above preparation, this will be easy. You’ll have thought of this possibility - or at least something similar - and outlined potential responses. Thanks to your media monitoring, you’ll know where the worst public response is happening (typically social media) and what is being said. You can tweak your responses based on that.

Pro tip: be sure to halt any previously scheduled public correspondence. If a social media post goes out during the crisis and it’s about an unrelated topic, that’s going to look careless.

Respond immediately

You must respond as quickly as possible to the situation at hand. Silence may make the public suspicious that you’re guilty or you don’t have things under control. Even if you don’t have all the answers people are clamoring for, you have to say something. Remember, if you don’t tell your story, someone else will. But you can’t just say anything. Here’s what a response should entail:

  • Show empathy. No matter what - even if it wasn’t your mistake - be compassionate. Right now, things are not about you. It is about the victims of this incident. You need to focus on them and how they’re feeling. Ask yourself “how would I feel if this happened to me?” This empathy should help guide your messaging. Be human and sincere about it.
  • Information. Be as transparent as possible about what you know. If you don’t have any updates, admit that and promise that you’re investigating the issue. If you look like you’re hiding something, trust will evaporate. Even if it is negative information that comes to light, share it. If you’re the one sharing it, that gives you a chance to stop things from spiraling out of control.
  • Promise action. Let your stakeholders know that you’re already thinking about how to ensure this never happens again.

Prepare stakeholders

The stakeholders you identified in your crisis management preparation should now be sent the language you decided in step two. Making sure everyone is on the same page ensures that the message doesn’t change. You can do this by sending out a company-wide email, setting a meeting to discuss the response with customer-facing employees, and giving your investors a phone call. You should also take the time to run through the language with your spokespeople in case the media wants to interview anyone about the crisis

Write a press release

Your initial response will most likely be over social media or sent out in a brief statement. After you have a handle on the issue, you should make the public aware that you have made strides toward solving it completely (if possible) and ensuring it doesn’t happen again.

Learn how to write a press release that is transparent, human, apologetic and informational. You may end up writing several types of press releases on the issue if it’s ongoing and needs to be solved in steps. 

Post-crisis

Even after you’ve stemmed the leak and the ship has begun cruising along again, the patched-up damage is still visible to the public. The crisis cannot be completely forgotten. Repairing your reputation is something the brand will have to work on for a long time.

crisis-management-plan

For starters, make sure you are delivering on any promises you made during the crisis. This can include compensation, corrective actions and/or investigative efforts. Keep communicating with the public as you fulfill your promises. That way, your reliability is never questioned. These communications can be quick-hit tweets or lengthy press releases, depending on what it is you’d like to announce.

Your future marketing and public relations campaigns should be reconsidered based on what happened. You’ll want to be reaching out to the public more often and with messaging that engenders trust and respect.

As you and your brand move on from the experience, make sure to take a moment to evaluate how the crisis was handled. It can be a learning experience that helps you better prepare for the next rough patch.

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Always be on the lookout for potential crisis situations

Remember, both during the crisis and moving forward, to be transparent and caring. If done well, crises can actually have a positive spin for your brand. Proper crisis management and communication shows that your brand can withstand trouble, will put the victims first, and can be trusted to do the right thing. This will inspire loyalty among your customers and trust among the public.

Ready to take the next steps on monitoring crisis situations? Discover the best media monitoring software to help your PR team stay one-step ahead of potential disasters.

Holly Hunt
Author

Holly Hunt

Holly is a team lead on the content marketing team. An avid reader and writer, Holly graduated from the University of Missouri with a dual major in Journalism and English. Prior to joining G2 Crowd, she lived in Madison, WI, ate a horrifying amount of cheese curds, and then found her way to Chicago for a content writing gig.