So You Suddenly Have 100,000 Twitter Enemies: 4 Tips for Navigating a Fast-Moving PR Crisis
When a crisis occurs, it's important to get the communications right the first time, because failure to do so can lead to major, irreversible damage to your business' reputation and operations.
Managing a company’s brand and its communications can be a herculean task in the best of times, what with the sheer number of channels on which you must maintain a presence, as well as the need to come up with creative and positive content on an ongoing basis. When a crisis of any sort occurs, however, the difficulty level ratchets up by several orders of magnitude. Unlike in the old days when there would be some downtime to call a press conference or issue a press statement in time for it to get into the next day’s paper, things are very different now.
A crisis can come in myriad froms, from allegations of financial impropriety to environmental damage or racist or sexist behaviors by members of staff. Before you know it, there will be a large-scale assault on your company by a multitude of people on social media, even if the fault doesn’t lie with your company. That assault can result in permanent damage because most people will be unlikely to follow up to find the truth, and the posts, blogs, and tweets will be permanent, showing up every time someone looks your brand up. Here are three strategies to handle your crisis communication effectively:
Build a granular plan
The first step is to have a crisis management plan in place that is as comprehensive and granular as possible. You’ll need to thoroughly evaluate your company’s operations and identify all of the possible public-facing problems which could arise. It’s of course impossible to accurately predict future events, so you won’t be able to put a plan in place for all the possible incidences, with all their nuances of location, timing, and persons involved. What you can and must do, however, is to outline categories of events using broad strokes, and then put standard operating procedures in place for each of them.
These standard operating procedures must be equally comprehensive. The last thing you want is for an employee handling a social media account to on a tangent of their own initiative, responding to random comments without a clear, pre-approved script. While you don’t want responses to sound robotic, it’s important to have clear guidelines, because beyond posing a reputational risk, there could also be a potential liability if a customer service representative makes unguarded remarks on behalf of the company.
Prioritize speed, not haste
The first thing to keep in mind is that you must get a response out there as soon as possible. Delays are typically interpreted as insensitivity, and it can result in even more backlash, as people come to believe that the company is unconcerned with or tolerates whatever the problem is. There should be an “all hands on deck” email (or any other kind of communication you typically use) to make sure that everyone who needs to be acting is doing so, gathering information, verifying reports, and preparing the actual report that will be issued.
That said, you must be cautious not to sacrifice accuracy and fairness on the altar of speed. A delayed response is bad, but it’s nowhere as damaging to a company’s reputation as a response that has to be withdrawn and replaced to fix avoidable mistakes. That will only make your company seem incompetent, in addition to whatever negative perception the crisis has already created.
Balance the quantity
In some crisis situations, a single press release can be enough to douse tensions and get your brand back on track, but in others, you might need to make several statements over a period of time and stay in touch with your followers on Twitter or other social media platforms by responding to their posts publicly and via private message. The trick is in identifying which of those approaches is best for a given situation.
The pace and cadence of your communications are crucial. If you overcommunicate, you’ll likely draw more scrutiny from users/customers, and also from the media, which can lead to a spiral of more negative publicity. It’s also important to avoid violating any employee, patient, student, or customer confidentiality. One way to handle incessant requests for comments is to make your initial statement as comprehensive as possible so that you can refer to it subsequently, instead of having to give fresh responses each time. You can also respond to messages letting them know that you’ll give further updates so that way you won’t seem unresponsive but won’t also be saying too much.
Analyze and implement customer feedback
As you respond to the issues that arise in the course of doing business, you will inevitably receive feedback from customers regarding how effective your approaches were. This feedback might be explicit in the form of people contacting you to share their thoughts, or it might be indirect, such as customers’ comments on social media.
It’s important to have an effective social listening system that will enable you to keep track of what customers are saying about your brand before, during, and after any crisis. You can then implement the recommendations that seem to have the backing of a critical mass of your customers. When implementing changes though, it’s important to make them gradually and use A/B testing techniques to validate your hypotheses before committing fully to any major changes.
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