Every business needs a crisis communications plan. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 100-year-old consumer brand or a shiny new B2B tech company. You need a viable plan and you should be thinking about updating that plan every year. Why? Allow me to answer that question with more questions…
Can your technology fail or go offline? Would your customers be frustrated by that?
Can your company be the source of a data breach?
Do you have employees with the capacity to act inappropriately or unprofessionally in a public setting?
If you answered ‘Yes’ to any of those questions, then you need a crisis communications plan.
We’re all more connected than we’ve ever been before and bad new spreads lightning fast. That means anyone with an Internet connection can have an opinion about your brand and broadcast it to the world. It also means that there are millions of ways for sensitive information about your business to fall into the hands of the general public at any moment.
There are two positions a brand can take when faced with a crisis – proactive and reactive. If you’re in a position to be proactive (you’ve discovered the problem before it becomes public), there is an opportunity to take more control over the message. If you’re in a reactive position (the problem is already public) it’s important to remain rational, avoid overly defensive positioning and make 100% certain that any communication you share is accurate to the best of your knowledge.
The way a brand communicates with the world during a crisis can make or break the company. So, why not take some time to think about the worst possible scenarios and map out a process for communications and some potential language?
With that in mind, here are a few key recommendations, based on experience, to help guide your thinking as you map out your plan.
This is the most important. You need to remain consistent. Every communication you make will be analyzed and compared to previous communications – if you get the first communication wrong, all statements that follow will be called into question. For example, if your company was the source of a data breach and you make a public statement saying that the personal information of 100 consumers was exposed, but you later learn that it was actually closer to 1,000 consumers… Your credibility goes down and the scrutiny goes up. More questions, more media and more negative attention.
Be as clear as possible and provide as much detail as makes sense (within reason). Ambiguity tends to incite more questions, which opens the brand up for more risk. Transparency and clarity earn respect and can help diffuse an inferno. Let’s stick with the data breach example. By providing a general statement with all the information you have at the time, you’re getting out in front of the story. Communicate what happened, what it means to the customer and what you’re doing to fix it right out of the gate. Something like, “We have reason to believe that approximately 1,000 client credentials have been compromised. We have no indication at this time that any accounts have been accessed without permission, but we have taken proactive steps to ensure the security of all accounts.” What you know, who is affected, and what you’re doing. This simple statement puts you ahead of the game.
Expect that reporters will get it wrong. Speculation will happen. It’s important that you don’t overreact too quickly – there are several ways to maintain control in a chaotic situation, and lashing out wildly at miscommunications are not one of them. When possible, create a central location (like your blog), where customers and the media can go to get the most up-to-date information regarding the crisis. It’s also important to set expectations with regard to the frequency of updates – and hold true to it. Communicate with your employees and remind them about any policy you may have regarding interactions with media and external communications on social media. In a recent experience, a CEO of a company that had experienced a data breach asked, “We know who this person is and we know the answer to the question they are asking us on Twitter – can’t we just quickly respond and help them out?” That may be the honorable thing to do, but it opens up a can of worms in regards to your audience’s communications expectations and relinquishes some control. You don’t want to set the expectation that you’re going to respond to every question posed on Twitter. Also keep in mind that it isn’t necessary to communicate everything all at once. You have control – it is fine to trickle out information as you learn more about the crisis or as you start to see repeat questions/concerns from customers/consumers.
There’s really a fourth ‘C’ that PR pros need to keep in mind when they’re navigating the treacherous waters of a crisis, and that’s ‘calm.’ A level-head is critical in times of crisis and that responsibility falls directly on the shoulders of the communications professional. It’s easy for emotion to rear its head in stressful times like this, but sound, objective council is the most valuable asset you can bring into the mix.
Unfortunately, there will always be a need for crisis communications in PR. This post scratches the surface of what a brand can experience during a crisis situation, but the goal is to get you thinking and planning ahead. Hopefully you never have to use it, but the cliché holds true for crisis communications – plan for the worst and hope for the best.