Some say, “Any publicity is good publicity.” Those folks are obviously not today’s strategic public relations practitioners.
With the growth of social media, the 24/7 news cycle and a rise in citizen journalism, PR professionals will attest that what people say about a company and its products, how they say it and where they report can sometimes be anything but good. Negative sentiment – whether in the media or online – can change partnerships, damage stock value, and hurt employee recruitment and retention. It can negatively affect sales, harm overall reputation, and much more. And as a recent study by the Altimeter Group shows, brand crises, particularly social media crises, are on the rise.
Opportunities And Challenges For Brands
Sure, today’s online environment and “news of the minute” attitude provide tremendous opportunities to share company news with more people than ever before. We can engage customers and educate influencers about products, quickly and efficiently. And, the word can spread…like wildfire. But with opportunities also come challenges.
When an organization or its products come under fire, whether in truth or not, it’s critical to respond, always with intention and appropriateness. What’s amazing is that many companies are not simply ready. In fact, according to recent Crisis Preparedness study by Burson-Marstellar and Penn Schoen Berland (pdf) conducted with global businesses, only 20 percent are considered well-prepared for possible risk. What’s considered well prepared? They have a strategic crisis plan, they understand its importance and they review it periodically.
How To Approach Crisis Preparation
At IMRE, we encourage all of our clients to be prepared for issues that might arise. From an unfavorable product review to a manufacturing accident, a full-on reputation attack to a security failure, a problem quickly can become a crisis, especially if you’re not equipped.
The number one success factor in crisis communications is to plan ahead. While it’s unlikely you’ll be able to foresee every risk, having a plan of action will provide one of the most important factors in a crisis – a clear head.
While there are nuances to every situation and every organization, there are a few lessons we’ve learned over the years that every organization should keep in mind:
- Plan and Prep – These days it’s hard to commit resources to something that doesn’t immediately provide ROI. But smart executives know that being prepared for a crisis will provide great value – triple-fold – if ever a reputation management issue comes to play. Sometimes it’s a matter of business ultimately recovering…or not. Once you’ve committed to creating a plan, get the right people in the room – executives, communication professionals, sales managers, distribution personnel, and HR staffers – to provide a holistic view of your business inside and out. It’s also a good practice to enlist outside counsel who can assure all insights are considered and all avenues are accounted for.
- Acknowledge – When an issue arises, whether inside the building, out in traditional media, or online, it’s important to acknowledge the concern, especially if someone has been harmed. It’s true that legal concerns sometimes prevent conversation outside of a courtroom. But we believe it’s critical to acknowledge a concern. This is where it’s especially helpful to have messaging (holding statements) at hand and a clear communication matrix to follow.
- Get the Facts – Know the facts before you speak. It’s that simple. It’s not okay to provide conjecture, opinion or half-truths. Even if you have to provide multiple updates throughout a situation, give out known information only.
- Put a face on it – It’s so easy to use “corporate-speak” and hide behind a logo or brand recognition when a crisis arises. But remember it’s that brand you’re seeking to protect. Know (ahead of time) who your spokespeople will be, and get them out front immediately. In planning, choose a group of organizational personnel who can speak to a variety of subjects and train them annually to be ready for speaking in public or to the media. You may also want to leverage relationships you’ve built outside of the organization. Having someone else (an industry trade association or a topical influencer) speak on your behalf can lend third party credibility that can be powerful in a crisis situation. But be ready ahead of time. Your corporate communications or public relations team should identify and build these critical relationships as part of an overall planning PR strategy for your company and/or product. Then you’re armed, if and when you need to make “an ask” for support.
- Own the message – With planning behind you, you have a playbook and you’re able to focus on the situation at hand. Don’t let internal conflict or differences of opinion hold you at bay. But don’t move ahead with knee-jerk reactions like Rupert Murdoch seemed to do last month when faced with the News Corp crisis mentioned here. This can cause more speculation and then rumors, instead of the facts, begin to take control. Armed with the facts and key messages, put your spokespeople to work and own the message – first to key stakeholders and then others. Only you can speak confidently about your organization and your products. So own it. Fast.
- Be transparent – Commit to transparency in all of your communications – before, during and after a crisis. Today’s consumer is more curious, aware and informed than ever before, so your ability to be open and transparent could mean an easy road to rebuilding your reputation, or the ability to even repair it at all.
- Be available – Don’t speak and then hide. Own the message, share it and be willing to speak again and again as needed.
- Put social media to work – While the growth of social media can be a thorn in a communicator’s side, its measurement is one of the best things about our jobs today. As soon as a crisis arises, get your social media team up to speed on the issue, and initiate tracking. Working shoulder to shoulder, social media and media relations experts can see how an issue is being spread online and in the media, and uncover critical insights for how to adjust what you’re saying, how you’re saying it and where you’re communicating. Leverage all available channels to create the appropriate response and to engage audiences appropriately. Here’s an example of how the U.S. Geological Survey utilized social media to communicate and crowd-source during last week’s East Coast earthquake.
- Measure and learn – After the “fire” dies down and you’ve breathed the collective sigh of relief, don’t forget what you’ve been through. Utilizing your crisis plan, tracking, coverage, and your audiences’ behavior, take a holistic look at the issue from the other side. Evaluate response times. Put a critical eye on the messaging. Update processes and procedures. Learn from the past and plan again for the future.
As you plan for all the opportunities and challenges your team faces in 2012, take some time to contemplate what could go wrong (here’s another case study to review) and prepare – strategically – to face what’s ahead.
What do you think? Do the new communications opportunities offered by social and emerging media outweigh the higher risks of engagement? What steps has your brand taken to prepare for brand crises? Comment below.