5 Crisis Management Tips for Your Digital Brand

Brands can be destroyed in hours. Remember: You're not the story.

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By Derek Newton

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Creating a brand used to take years. Companies often started locally or regionally, developed loyal customers and built a market identity -- supplemented by print or electronic advertising as brands grew. In addition to taking a long time, brand-building also took a great deal of money.

Related: 5 Crisis Management Tips Olivia Pope Would Endorse

Flash-forward to today: While it's still possible to build a brand using those traditional ways, doing it all at once, digitally, is now much more common. Certainly, building a brand still costs. But the outlay in time is a fraction of what it used to be. It's now actually possible to build a national brand in days or weeks instead of years.

At the same time, the new digital foundations of branding present real challenges for brands, the companies behind them and the managers hired to oversee and nurture them. Today, what can be built in days can be destroyed in hours.

"Digital marketing is still largely a frontier," Adam Fridman, director of the Chicago digital marketing and branding firm Mabbly, told me. "Online brands don't have the staying power traditional brands once did. They require constant curation and content and can be deeply damaged in the blink of an eye."

While there are bad actors in the world who for their own reasons may target and damage a brand -- last year's Sony Pictures hack comes to mind -- most threats to brands come from unrelated bad news (think: Subway) or calamity (think: Malaysia Airlines)

So, what should you do when your digital brand is threatened by bad news or events? Here are five tips:

1. Don't panic.

Clarity, understanding of the facts and temperament are your friends in digital brand communications. Slow down, stay calm and be absolutely sure you understand what is happening and what has happened, as opposed to what you think or heard has happened.

Few things make a bad situation worse than having to clarify or retract something later. Those mistakes can damage a brand more than the original event. Be calm, be clear and attribute everything. If you don't know it to be true, don't say it.

2. Understand the victims.

Almost always, the brand or company is not the real victim of the bad circumstances. Nor, usually, are your shareholders or investors. And even though it feels like you are under attack (sometimes personally), remember: You're not the story. You may feel otherwise, but the first several waves of the story aren't about you.

Instead, be clear about who really is suffering or being penalized and talk about that individual or individuals. Focus on helping and making that problem better. Offer any assistance you can both in private and in public. Collaborate and cooperate with others who may be trying to help. Don't ever let the appearance of protecting your brand stand in the way of providing a helpful response to the real victims.

Related: Worried About Managing a Company Crisis? Take These 4 Proactive Steps

3. Don't lie or mislead or be too cute.

After you know what you know, resist the urge to shade the truth or outright lie. Even if the news is bad or could make your company or brand look even worse, don't cover it up. Don't shift blame. Don't dodge and play games.

Brands can survive bad news, even when it's their fault (think: BP). When people are suffering, your brand may not survive efforts to lie out of self-interest. If your company screwed up, admit it. And don't be shy about battling the lawyers or top bosses. From a brand and PR perspective, this isn't even a close call. The best crisis people are the ones in the room saying, "We have to tell people about this."

As long as you know what you know (see the "Don't Panic" rule), say it.

4. Help the press.

When you're in crisis, members of the press will feel like the enemy. They aren't.

The media want to tell the story of what happened or is happening. They need your help to do that, and, as much as you may think otherwise, they aren't always motivated by drama or headlines. They want to get it right. Help them get good information and ask them for help when you need it -- for getting out emergency information or needing more time.

Also resist the urge to do press favors in a crisis. Play fair. Don't try to win friends or settle press scores. Again, remember who the victims are. When it's over, media members will thank and respect you for being a professional who understood their jobs and tried to help. That trust and credibility will help you re-build or manage your brand when it's time.

5. Be open, and update often.

Silence is a killer in these situations. Speak clearly and speak often -- even if you're repetitive. Tell people what you know and tell them what you don't know. You should even tell people when you expect to know things.

That's important because communications are instant now -- especially in a crisis. And a 10-minute silence can feel like an eternity. Most of all, from a brand perspective, you never want to appear to be hoarding information or keeping things from people who want (and may need) to know. If you are calm and know the facts, you should "over-share," both in frequency and volume.

I also recommend not "winging it" during crisis moments. There's real value in having people on your team who understand this. Or at least know whom they can call for help. Given what it takes to build a brand, there are real consequences of not doing your best in a crisis – consequences that will ultimately affect more than your brand.

Related: Abortions at Dunkin' Donuts: How Brands Should React When They Get Strange, Potentially Damaging Press

Derek Newton

NYC based communications and public relations professional

Derek Newton is a communications expert and writer based in New York City. He has been working in nonprofit, political and policy communications for more than 20 years and helped launch several startups. 

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