What is crisis communication? 7 ways to prepare

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” — Warren Buffett

Crisis communication is a public relations specialty that aims to maintain or defend the reputation of a company or person under distress or duress, usually in a public way.

For any organisation, crisis management is a matter of “when,” not “if”. Not only do companies have to be risk-aware, they must be risk-prepared.

Not all threats are considered equal in severity. A company’s state of preparedness when a crisis hits can dramatically affect outcomes: from disastrous to surprisingly positive. In 2016, Deloitte conducted a global survey to gain insight into how confident board members are with crisis management.

Alarmingly, less than half (49 percent) engaged with management to understand what has been done to support crisis preparedness.

We address the top five threats businesses face today and the appropriate actions to managing a crisis.

Social Media Backlash

Speed is everything when managing social media. With a third of the world on social media, when an issue goes viral, it spreads like wildfire. Brands are desperate to maintain a positive impression on social media but forget they are not immune to bad publicity.

Take Snapchat for example. As an attempt to halt its decline over the past few years, Snapchat decided to create a “Would You Rather” advertisement at the beginning of each story. Its intention was to improve engagement, and it was all fun-and-games until the app released the advertisement “Would You Rather…Slap Rihanna or Punch Chris Brown?”, unintentionally referring to the 2009 incident when Chris assaulted Rihanna. Not only did Rihanna refuse to accept Snapchat’s public apology, the company lost $800,000 while social media users took to Twitter and Facebook to criticise Snapchat for its shameful and heartless act.

The saying “no publicity is bad publicity” is not so relevant in digital situations, as the ability for it to spiral to viral is exponentially higher.

Brands at a reputational risk must act fast, but not recklessly, in response to a crisis situation.

Keep informed to be up to speed with news as it happens and rely on manual monitoring, a mix of humans and tools. As social media has established itself as an information-distribution powerhouse, a management plan for social media backlash is essential. Take a step back, assess the investment and make a good judgement on whether the return is beneficial or detrimental.

Product/Service Faults

Managing a crisis regarding product scandals or service complaints takes slightly longer.

For example, in 2016 Samsung’s well-reviewed Galaxy Note 7 experienced severe overheating and explosions. Rather than issuing an immediate response, the company remained silent on the faulty product for months. Several months after the problem became known to the public, Samsung recalled 2.5 million devices and discontinued the model. The effort cost the company a whopping $5 billion at least. Time will be the most telling factor in how Samsung recovers from the Galaxy Note 7 issues and how long it takes consumers to put their trust back in the company.

Addressing the problem and offering a solution are key factors toward regaining consumers’ trust.

Miscommunication

Brand messaging must be made appropriate to the target audience’s native language. If a brand and its intended audience are not understanding or speaking the same language, misinterpretation is likely to occur.    

A popular example is Tourism Australia’s 2006 “So where the bloody hell are you?” campaign. The organisation undertook a massive advertising campaign to attract tourists to Australia. The word ‘bloody’ can be offensive in some of the campaign’s key markets. The UK banned the television advertisements, eventually relenting and allowing the ad to air after 9pm; roadside billboards, however, were permanently removed.  

Miscommunication is often unintentional and hard to position correctly once there is controversy. Focus groups are an essential precautionary method to testing your brand messaging as a method of understanding different interpretations from audiences inside and outside your target market.

Cybercrime

According to PwC’s 22nd Annual Global CEO Survey trends series, respondents list cyber threats as one of the top five concerns to their organisation’s growth prospects. Unauthorised access to personal information can leave a company incredibly vulnerable, especially among online retailers.

Outdoor gear retailer Kathmandu, for example, faced damage control early 2019 when unidentified third-parties gained unauthorised access to customer data during the post-holiday sales period. The company responded quickly with a statement on its website, explaining the situation and the preventative measures it was taking to strengthen customers’ sensitive information. Kathmandu further provided a Q&A on the situation and actions customers could take to protect their data.

Lesson learned here: internal technical management is crucial. As technology becomes more powerful, company’s must take extensive measures to protect sensitive information. Brands are accountable if internal and external sensitive information is released and should be continuously investing in security software to eliminate such consequences.  

Workplace Harassment

Though sometimes difficult to define, workplace harassment can quickly become a crisis if not properly – and sensitively – addressed.

New research from the Human Rights Commission found that 71 percent of Australians have experienced sexual harassment at some point in their lives. Scarily, there has been more than a 10 percent spike – 21 percent to 33 percent – in the last seven years of sexual harassment incidents.

Public sexual harassment incidences can quickly lead down a very damaging path for all involved. In 2018, one of ABC’s broadcast reporters spoke out about an inappropriate move Luke Foley, the leader of the New South Wales Labor party, made on her.

Similar situations take place in any workplace environment. Victims choose to remain silent out of fear of harming their reputation. Establishing a healthy workplace culture and educating employees of the consequences from abusive actions is crucial. Most importantly, it is the responsibility of all members on the managerial level as well as HR to understand how to resolve a workplace harassment issue.

Today, more women are speaking out about sexual harassment, kudos to the #MeToo movement. Managing a crisis such as harassment involves a system. The system needs to lay out preventative measures as well as steps to approaching an incident.

Precautionary measures to be crisis-ready

Rather than shifting all the attention to future scenarios, plan for the expected.

  1. Establish a dedicated crisis leadership team; train members on their roles and responsibilities; periodically re-train and update crisis team members.
  2. Identify a core cross-functional team with the talent and skills needed to see you through a crisis.
  3. Every member of the team must have after-hours contact details of everyone else.
  4. Include a communications expert in all crisis preparedness planning, along with legal, financial, executive and client or customer facing representatives.
  5. Develop a crisis playbook that reflects the real technical and business impacts a crisis would have on the organisation.
  6. Put the theory into practice. Some organisations do role-plays, simulated scenarios and as a minimum, advanced media training.
  7. Take action on lessons learned.

Conclusion

A company’s state of preparedness can dramatically affect outcomes (from disastrous to surprisingly positive) when a crisis hits. Prepare a crisis-management playbook or dedicated team. Having done the groundwork before adrenalin kicks in will allow you to think more quickly and clearly on your feet with rational decisions when crisis hits. Most importantly, remember not all crises are the same; each incident will require a unique approach and reaction — but you need your core crisis principles, chain of command, media training, and key messages in place that can pivot and flex to any situation.

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