Crisis communications is the opposite of traditional public relations and involves putting out a “fire” of some sort. Your brand might be under scrutiny for something said or done from a product recall to a bad tweet. There is often a tide of public and media opinion that follows.
Your response is the most important part of the equation. Your strategy determines whether the fire continues to escalate or if it will be put out quickly. In most cases when a company is faced with a crisis they often mess up the initial response.
The Facebook crisis communications case study
On March 17, 2018, The New York Times and other outlets reported how Cambridge Analytica used personal information to build a system that could profile voters by exposing the data of 50 million Facebook users.
Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, responded to the Cambridge Analytica scandal many days after. This led to mass outrage toward the company. The company lost about $37 billion in market value, Mark Zuckerberg is to testify before Congress, and consumers are pursuing a movement to #deletefacebook (which some say is impossible). While Mark did a good job at defending the company, when he finally spoke, nearly every story in its aftermath focused on the silence of the company.
Who better to know about these kinds of situations than the people who deal with them most frequently – publicists. I tapped some of my colleagues to hear their thoughts on crisis communications:
- It’s inevitable – Many companies will encounter a variety of crises within a year. These can include food quality issues, staff changes, discrimination, recalls, and more. Some may never come to fruition or be written about, but they happen.
- Have a plan in place – Transparency is a golden rule, especially if you have an agency on the frontlines dealing with the media. A company should always share all logistical details that answers: The “5 w’s”, what steps have been taken to handle the crisis so far, who needs to be kept in the loop/updated, what spokesperson is available to comment, and if the situation has potential to be shared over social media or news channels.
- Measure level of impact – The best way to assess if a piece of news is going to “blow up” is to do due diligence on the level of influence of the reporter/publication. A reporter/publication with minor influence may not be an issue, but it could be exacerbated with an overly proactive response. A reporter with major influence needs to be dealt with proactively. It might be worth considering a paid syndication of a neutral/positive story or leveraging a friendly who can break the story first.
- Tactic is everything – Proactive and reactive outreach are very important in a moment of crisis. With a preventative plan in place, it should be easy to quickly and effectively act when an issue occurs. In the situation that there is no preparation time, it’s beneficial to take a proactive stance to ensure consumers and potential customers that your brand or company cares and is taking appropriate steps.
- Take a multimedia approach – Communication and being informative is important. Companies should deliver their first statement within the first 60 minutes – including social media statements. Some options can include holding a press conference, setting up a media webcast, or creating a Twitter handle to respond to consumers. Leading the conversation fosters a big level of accountability.
In the digital world, news goes viral almost instantly. In a moment of a PR crisis, two of the most important things to remember are to be human and transparent. If people’s lives are being disrupted, an empathetic and sincere response goes a long way. Giving your PR team access to background information will allow them to develop the most effective plan. After the crisis, companies should monitor and document all coverage and social discussions. Learn from your mistakes and evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of the response. Finally, always remember to update your plan for the next time a crisis rolls around.