Catherine AllenCrises happen every day. For brands, how a crisis is handled could be the difference between conveying confidence in your brand and reputation or driving it into the ground. We sat down with Catherine Allen, our Executive Vice President of East Coast Services here at SHIFT, to hear some of her best practices for crisis communication — from preparation to misconceptions and lessons learned. Read on.

Where is the best place to start when preparing clients and a policy in advance of a crisis?
Set aside time at your next executive team meeting.  There are two types of plans.  One, a straw man plan that would be relevant no matter the crisis – who needs to be alerted to address safety concerns (employees, customers, data), who needs to be involved in message development and delivery, and a standard SOP.  The second will be crisis specific.  The minute you hear about the potential for a specific crisis – whether real or hypothetical – talk it through with those who will be in the bunker with you. If you are in a business with a standing, ongoing threat (cruise line, restaurant, data security company, amusement park, hospital, gas company, etc.), I recommend routine mock crisis management sessions that can have your team at-the-ready to work out kinks in your process before disaster strikes.

When building out a client’s PR strategy, how can you be on the look out for things that could evolve into a crisis? (For example, the JP Morgan hashtag incident.)
It’s less about a client’s PR strategy and more about an integrated approach where the right hand knows what the left hand is doing.  An advertising campaign might sound great on paper but have you asked your social media community managers how they think brand supporters and detractors will respond? As a PR team issues a news release – does it synch or conflict with social media messaging that day, or a billboard being erected on the side of the interstate?  Your team members are smart – that’s why you’ve assembled that team.  Pause for a moment and ask.

When a crisis hits, what is the first step you should take? The second?
The first step is always gather the right people and assess the facts quickly.  The second is to create an honest dialogue. You’ll want to hear the story from all sides to have a full download on what happened and why. It can be hard to have a conversation about why something went awry and who is responsible, but in order to successfully deal with a crisis, it’s a conversation that needs to be had. Once there’s an understanding about what occurred, it can be a lesson for the future.

What advice do you have for using social media in times of crisis?
Be authentic. Listen. Acknowledge. Share what you can, when you can. Everyone makes mistakes, and a customer can understand that unless a brand is being radio silent or arrogant in responding. That only leaves distaste in people’s mouths and makes them question the brand they had come to know and love. In the end, customers will want to be heard. They’ll want to voice their concerns. Show them that you’re listening and that you care.

What are some misconceptions about crisis communications?
Four come to mind.  One is that you will anticipate everything. You can’t possibly prepare for everything. However you can prepare your approach so that the twists and turns of the specific scenario don’t throw you off your game.  Two is that you must have all the facts before responding.  While ideal, it may not be feasible, and avoiding communication can be even more damaging to your brand.  Three, is that it can’t happen to you.  It can, otherwise the old adage of “best laid plans…” wouldn’t exist. Don’t panic, just prepare. Finally, fourth: that crisis comms is ‘a cover up game’ – and ‘can’t the PR team deal with it?’ We owe it to our stakeholders to acknowledge and address what’s at hand. You earn more respect that way in the end.

What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned in dealing with a PR crisis?
There are three quick ones: Involve the right people. Remove emotion from your internal conversations to move more quickly. Be honorable.

Now that you’ve heard some of Cathy’s tips, what is the best advice you have for dealing with a crisis?

Amanda Grinavich
Marketing Analyst


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