As communicators, we often hear about the importance of maintaining a positive reputation and planning for crises. Within the last year, discussions of crisis communications have been especially prevalent, as companies like United Airlines and Papa John’s made headlines for misconduct. These situations remind communicators that crises can happen to anyone and have serious consequences for companies.
With this in mind, it’s important for PR professionals to work with other members of their organization, including the C-suite and the legal department, to craft a thoughtful crisis communication plan. Whether you’re looking to produce a first draft of your plan, update one that’s been sitting on the shelf for awhile, or just gain some insight from the experts, the articles below can provide valuable guidance on the right questions to ask, the audiences to address, the channels to share information on, and more.
How to Prevent and Handle Crises
PR Daily has packaged crisis communications in a fun way, and that’s typically when it is most memorable. In “5 crisis communications lessons from ‘Stranger Things’,” Beki Winchel recommends that PR pros follow these five common-sense guidelines: honesty is the best policy; resist the urge to employ unethical tactics; you can rebrand yourself and make a comeback; when communicating after a crisis, consider all channels (Ed. note: this one was my favorite); and employ your strengths and abilities.
What could prairie dogs, monkeys, and bees teach you about crisis management? In this Spin Sucks article, Laura Petrolino explains how these three animals each have valuable lessons to teach communicators about handling crises. According to Laura, crisis management is both an art and a science, but we often get too wrapped up in the science of it and forget about the art of following our instincts. Take a walk on the wild side and learn how these animals could improve your crisis response tactics.
As communicators, we’re taught to prepare for a variety of crises that could affect our brand, but it’s impossible to plan for everything that could possibly happen. Crock-Pot, for example, probably didn’t plan for their product to be the catalyst for a character’s death on a fictional TV show, but that’s exactly what set in motion a recent brand crisis. Despite communicators’ best planning, unexpected crises can happen. This Harvard Business Review article details tips for managing problems that professionals were unable to predict.
Reputation takes a long time to build but can be ruined with a single misstep. A crisis can change the public’s perception of a brand, and, if the brand doesn’t handle the problems correctly, they may never be able to rebuild trust and fix their reputation. In particular, a brand’s online reputation has a massive effect on their business and bottom line. Current and prospective customers consult online reviews before doing business with a company and use social media to learn about and discuss companies. Solo PR Pros shares an infographic from MDG Advertising to highlight the importance of online reputation and explains how PR professionals should plan for and manage crises to preserve reputation.
Crises now spread faster than ever with the help of digital and social media. Problems can spread even faster when they’re part of an online petition. Following the forceful removal of a passenger from a United flight last year, for example, more than 200,000 people signed a WhiteHouse.gov petition calling for a federal investigation into the incident. Although an online petition provides a solid outlet for companies to respond to a crisis, organizations often mishandle their response. This Entrepreneur.com article outlines four mistakes to avoid when responding to online petitions.
One major factor that can play into crises is online reviews. Consider, for example, the Red Hen restaurant in Washington, DC. Following an incident involving another restaurant of the same name in Virginia, the DC Red Hen was inundated with fake online reviews, intending to lower their rating and harm their business. Fake reviews and attempting to game review sites like Yelp isn’t an isolated practice. This New Yorker article explores the war against fake reviews and the practice of “review brushing”, the posting of fake reviews to falsely inflate or lower online ratings. This can involve restaurants hiring freelancers to write fake reviews to boost their company’s rating and stimulate business, which puts the company at risk for an ethical crisis, or users falsely posting about products, as hundreds of people did by giving fake one-star reviews of Hillary Clinton’s latest book.
We don’t always think about internal communications during a crisis. Safety+Health Magazine, a publication of the National Safety Council, has posted a piece highlighting how social media can have a pronounced effect on a crisis–especially if that social content is being posted by employees on the inside of a company during a crisis. Their suggestion? Training, and a lot of it. Crisis planning–knowing who will be responsible for making statements and discussing potential hazards a company might face—help tremendously in the event of a crisis unfolding.
Along similar lines, Ragan.com covers “off-duty employees gone wild,” noting that a crisis emerges from within a company’s ranks—not all crises are external ones. This piece covers something most companies didn’t have to be concerned about in the past—what their employees do in their own free time. With video recording devices (smartphones) in virtually everyone’s pockets and the rapid dissemination that social media platforms provide, any employee’s embarrassing moment can become an issue for a company. The piece originally was posted on Provident Communication’s blog with the title “This is the biggest risk missing from your PR crisis plan,” which is a good title and probably an accurate assessment. Next time you’re reviewing crisis plans, take a few moments to discuss responses to “employees gone wild.”
Examples to Guide Planning & Management
In late July, a fire consumed 70,000 acres of land in Oregon, jeopardized 500 homes, and claimed at least one life. As the fire raged on, county officials launched a targeted communications plan to keep the public informed, including daily press conferences, Facebook Live streaming, and continual updates about when the public could expect to hear new information. The handling of this case is, according to veteran PR professional Lee Weinstein, an example of effective crisis communications. Ward Hubbell, president of Hubbell Communications, goes on to explain the three R’s of crisis management, and the two experts give advice for successfully handling crises.
An Inc. piece highlights a rather dubious PR crisis strategy currently being deployed by Amazon. Far from resolving the original crisis, the response has now created a mini sub-crisis of its own. Amazon has been criticized for less-than ideal conditions for workers at its fulfillment centers. So, the company is now responding to complaints on Twitter, but a “sameness” has been noted in the cheery responses, to the extent that some are suggesting that these are not even individuals, they are bots (which is incorrect, these are actual employees designated as Ambassadors). It’s a good reminder that authenticity goes a long way in responding to criticism. Sound too canned or too stuck to talking points, and these days you’ll get tagged as something less-than-human.
Tips from the Experts
Forbes has pulled together a list of suggestions from its Coaches Council on ways to avert PR disasters. No company enjoys being in crisis mode, but a company’s approach in handling a crisis can make all the difference in how it comes out on the other side of one: with a reputation intact or in tatters. While most of the advice on the list is fairly routine, there are a few additions that are now starting to be mentioned more frequently, and they’re worth highlighting here. Number 5 on the list “Create a diverse crisis response team,” is noteworthy because it acknowledges that a crisis response is communicated to a broad audience. Number 9, “Build trust in advance,” is increasingly recognized as a factor in recovering from a crisis quickly.
Bernstein Crisis Management, a PR firm specializing in crisis comms, discusses “outrage outbreaks”—and how to remain calm during one. This is an issue that has become far too common as of late. A situational flare-up online can cause a firestorm of outrage, and the onslaught that follows can feel like it will never let up. In 4 ways to stay calm when faced with public outrage, Erik Bernstein shows us how to make it through an online outrage incident with sanity intact.
If you work in any aspect of the food industry, whether for a restaurant, grocery store chain, or agricultural company, you know there are plenty of opportunities for a crisis to emerge. Crises related to food need special management, as a mishandled food crisis can contribute to a more widespread or serious outbreak of foodborne illness. Francine L. Shaw, the President of Savvy Food Safety- a company offering a variety of services including food safety education and crisis management- addresses other crises that professionals in the food industry could encounter and outlines a detailed plan for managing these situations.
Communicators are well aware that a crisis communications plan is necessary, but it can be daunting to know where to begin. Your plan needs to be prepared to answer the right questions, address the affected audiences, and provide information through various channels. Ready.gov, the official site for the Department of Homeland Security, provides a comprehensive guide for communicators to inform their crisis management planning.
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