No matter how close the needle is to E on my gas gauge, I refuse to pull into an Exxon station. The reason? I vividly remember the Exxon Valdez disaster. The second-largest manmade oil spill happened in 1989 and I still won’t buy Exxon gas. It’s a blemish (figuratively and literally) that I won’t get over.
Apparently, I’m not the only one. Two of the top five searches for the world’s second-largest public energy company refer to the tragic event – even though it happened 30+ years ago.
The catastrophe shows how long a crisis can impact a company. Judging by the search volume, it also indicates poor crisis communications can tarnish a brand for more than a generation.
Given the current social climate and that COVID-19 will still be lingering after the economy opens back up, brands need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. Here are eight steps to help weather any crisis and maintain your brand’s reputation.
Have A Crisis Communications Plan
The best way to overcome a crisis is to be prepared and that means having a plan. 2020 showed that many brands are ill equipped to deal with a negative situation. If a brand has the proper crisis communications plan in place, it can respond with a coherent message quickly to mitigate an untenable situation.
A Team Approach
Improper statements by unauthorized people add fuel to the crisis fire. That’s why a key element of the aforementioned crisis communications plan is establishing a response team to ensure people know their roles. It’s important that the organization designates spokespeople who speak with one voice during a crisis to ensure the correct message is conveyed.
In-house professionals who know the brand and external experts who can see the situation from a customer/media/competitor perspective should comprise the response team. Creating a team clearly establishes the protocol that employees, board members, and other stakeholders need to follow. This saves the brand from being forced to explain comments from an unofficial representative that are not aligned with the overall message.
Media training is an important – and too all forgotten – aspect of being prepared for a crisis. A spokesperson properly trained by PR professionals deftly handles difficult questions from media, customers, and target audiences. They also properly convey the message in all settings.
Craft Your Message
A response has to be crafted – but only after all the facts are gathered. The statement should be transparent and honest. A crisis is the wrong time for a company to be defensive. Brands need to be strategic, not emotional.
Rule #1: “No comment” is not an option. Many will view this as an attempt to hide the truth or avoid the issue. If inquiries land in your inbox or voicemail before all the information is collected, don’t ignore them. Send a brief reply that you will issue a statement after reviewing all information. Anything more may force a brand to backtrack or contradict something sent prematurely, escalating the situation.
Open Lines of Communication
Once the message is prepared, it’s time to communicate it to the appropriate audiences. Example communications include press releases, media statements, employee correspondence, customer service scripts, as well as emails and phone calls to customers.
A good rule of thumb is to send a statement and/or release to media. If you have strong relations with certain outlets or editors, start with them. They are more likely to portray the story fairly. That is why brands should have an on-gong media relations program in place. It builds these all-important relationships, as well as brand equity with target audiences that helps during a crisis.
Don’t Forget Internal Audiences
Conveying the message to employees, partners, and other internal audiences is critical. These people are your brand’s frontline and main touchpoints with customers. What they say needs to be consistent with media reports and posts on a brand’s website and social media. Otherwise, it will be perceived as less than genuine and damage the brand.
Success with this part of the plan relies on the internal audiences knowing and believing a brand’s values. That foundation is built over time, not during a crisis. Reinforce corporate values continually at all levels of an organization to ingrain a positive opinion amongst employees and partners.
Monitor the Situation
You will need to track inbound and outbound communications to address follow-up questions or concerns. It’s important to also track what people are saying about your brand online. Companies can lose 22% of their business with just one negative article on the first page of search results. Staying aware of changing public opinion can help make any necessary alterations to the actions being taken.
Be Aware of Social Media
No crisis communications plan is complete unless it addresses social media. Publishing a social media policy and giving it to every employee is the best way to prevent online issues. The policy should provide clear guidelines for appropriate use, outline expectations for branded accounts, and explain how employees can talk about the business on their personal channels.
A good social listening program can alert you of an emerging issue well before it turns into a crisis. Social sentiment captures how people feel about your brand. If you see a sudden negative change in that metric, a red flag should be raised. A spike in brand mentions overall is worth investigating, too.
Don’t get dragged into a discussion of what went wrong but don’t go dark either. Address the crisis with posted content and halt all other content until the situation has calmed. Adapt the tone and voice for the respective social media platform but keep all posts short and to the point.
Turning the Page
Once a crisis passes, work remains. Assess how the situation was handled by conducting a post-event review. Talk about what could have been done differently.
Brands need to recover credibility after a crisis, as well. Conversation needs to shift to positive news. A public relations campaign is an excellent tool to achieve that shift in opinion.
An emergency tests a brand’s strength. To earn a passing grade, a crisis communications plan must be in place, often well before the event occurs.