Using communications to mitigate crises

By Posted in - ALL & Content Strategy & Social Media on March 3rd, 2016 0 Comments

It’s an odd quirk of public relations and communications that some of the most successful work happens behind the scenes. Dealing with an internal crisis works best when the news never reaches the outside world, after all…

When crisis management works really well, we never know that it ever happened at all. The plan was tested, the escalation pathway worked, and the potential crisis never even got out of the gate. But sometimes there are crises so big that they have to play out in the public eye, and when this happens communications – and particularly social media – has a vital role to play.

Get ahead of the story

Basically, don’t be slow. The worst thing you can do in a crisis is nothing. The second worst is to appear to be doing nothing. The flow of information on social media will not wait for you, and incorrect information will spread just as fast (or faster) than the truth.

Even if you can’t give out any details at first, you can put out holding statements – on your website, on Twitter, to the media – to let people know that you’re doing something, and address any concerns that you can.

It might be difficult in the early stages of a crisis to know exactly what the truth is, but do what you can to find out everything. The truth is very powerful in a crisis, and being able to accurately inform your audience from the start is infinitely better than dealing with the fallout from a cover-up (or what the public perceives to be a cover-up).

(As an aside – and I really shouldn’t have to say this – if you say that you’re doing something, make sure you’re actually doing it. Any disconnect between what you say and what you do may soon be picked up on social media and will no doubt make the situation worse.)

Look before you leap

I know, I know. I just said you need to act quickly. But that doesn’t mean you can make a knee-jerk reaction. Take a moment to assess the situation, and make sure your initial response isn’t going to make things worse.

You can also use this initial pause to make sure you get input from any stakeholders you need to consult – don’t cause yourself internal problems by forgetting to speak to the legal team, for example…

(Another aside: I’m not advocating a ten-step sign-off process for all your tweets, or getting your holding statements written by a committee. But you need to let people know what’s happening, so you don’t get crossed wires in your organisation.)

Keep your ear to the ground

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Social media is a great way to gauge the public response to a crisis. Use it to find out what people are saying – don’t make assumptions. Sometimes things will be worse than they initially seem, other times public opinion might be on your side.

Once you know which way the wind is blowing, you can plan accordingly. If you seem to be building a following of advocates online, let them do some work for you – thank them for their support and you might see them stepping in to help explain the situation to others.

If, on the other hand, public opinion is against you, you’ll know what the big problems are. Are people more concerned about your lack of response to the issue? Did they think your apology wasn’t good enough? Direct your attention to the biggest problems and try to solve them.

If there’s a small section of your audience who seem to be causing trouble for the sake of it, feel free to ignore them. You’ll never win them over, so there’s little point trying. Haters gonna hate, unfortunately.

Who is speaking for you?

You should be ready to have spokespeople in place to put out an official line. Who you choose is up to you, but they should be trained and confident in the situation they’ll be in – a live TV interview, a sit-down with a newspaper journalist, or a live Twitter Q&A.

It’s worth remembering that social media can make any employee a spokesperson – so be prepared for messages to come from all levels of your company, without your input. That’s just the way things are nowadays. Don’t try and stamp on this, as it’s likely to make things worse.

(ANOTHER another aside: Internal communications are hugely important in a crisis. If you don’t tell your staff what’s happening, why would they support you? Let them know what’s going on, how you plan to fix it, and what it means for them. If you’re worried that you can’t trust your employees to help you in a crisis, then you might need to have a think about your organisation’s workplace culture…)

Acknowledge your mistakes…

Apologies can go a long way. We’re all human, and people will accept that mistakes can happen. It’s OK to admit when you’re wrong, and it gives you an opportunity to explain how you’re going to improve things in the future.

Asda recently ran into this issue, when they chose to remove food bank collection points from their stores. Their reasoning seemed to make little sense to their customers, and only a week or so later they changed their minds, citing a high level of negative feedback from the public and their own staff. They admitted that they had made a mistake and brought the collection points back.

… but avoid easy mistakes

That’s not to say that people will forgive anything – if you’re in the middle of a crisis, make sure you pull back on some of your other activity. People don’t want to hear about your great PR story when there’s something bigger going on.

On a much smaller level, make sure you consider any planned social media posts. In the early stages of Tesco’s horsemeat crisis, one of their Twitter accounts signed off for the day with an unintentional pun:

A quick look at scheduled posts might have helped them avoid this.

(To be fair to them, they left the tweet in place and apologised – so they did handle the aftermath well.)

Play a game

You’ve obviously already got a crisis management plan, but do you know if it will work? You really don’t want to leave it until a real crisis occurs before finding out that there are big holes in your plan…

Prepare your team by testing different scenarios. This will help you to devise ideas about how to combat different situations. You can run these as tabletop exercises or stage full-blown fake emergencies.

Mocking up a complete incident might feel like a lot of work for an imaginary scenario, but it can pay massive dividends – I was once involved in an emergency exercise for the aviation industry which highlighted a couple of potential communications problems. When a real-life emergency of very similar circumstances played out only a week later, we were able to deal with the issues in a much smoother manner.

Exercises like this can help you to get processes and internal structures in place to minimise any potential problems – all as part of your crisis management plan. From a reputational perspective, running about and panicking in a controlled environment is much safer than doing it in public.

Learn from the experience

Whatever happens during a crisis, when it’s all over you should take some time to reflect on what happened and what you can learn for next time. While people can be forgiving of one-off errors, they’re far less understanding of repeated mistakes when the organisation involved really should know better.

If you want to talk about preparing yourself for your next crisis (or you’re in the middle of one and want some advice) just get in touch.

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