Communicating through the crisis

Communication is one of the key factors in getting through a crisis. At Polpeo, we help brands test their crisis communication plans through our social media simulations.

Before social media, a brand was likely to be the first person to hear about a crisis, and so could ‘control’ (or at least manage) the message as it broke. Now, you’re more likely to be managing the impact of your customers snapping photos as a crisis breaks and posting them to Instagram, updating their Facebook status and talking to media via Twitter.

Businesses need to adapt their crisis plans and train for a world where communication is instantaneous, borderless and doesn’t respect time zones. While you’re asleep, someone, somewhere will be tweeting about your brand.

10 key principles of crisis communication

  1. Manage your reputation during the good times and people will be more inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt during a crisis.
  2. Know that you can’t solve every crisis by good communication alone. If the root of your crisis lies in a business decision, you’ll need to makes another business decision to truly neutralise the crisis. Coca-Cola had to do this in 2013 when it withdrew unintentionally insulting Vitamin Water bottle caps.
  3. You can’t control what people say about you on social media channels. But you can control how you respond. Be clear, open and decisive and respond to direct questions with a straight answer.
  4. Control what you can. You can have a clear social media policy in place for employees. The best-laid plans will fall apart if one of your team is posting ‘it’s all kicking off at the office!’ During a crisis, one voice should speak for the business. Make sure your team know their role in corporate reputation.
  5. The perils of censorship – on a brand-owned channel, like a company Facebook page, it might seem appropriate to delete negative comments that serve only to perpetuate the crisis. But this is not how social media works. Your page isn’t just a marketing tool; it’s a place for conversation. Of course you must moderate: if the content is illegal, abusive or breaks the community rules, then delete it. But deleting critical (but informed) comment will only serve to inflame the situation, and drive commenters to platforms that you have no control over.
  6. Know when no response is the best response. If someone is dead set on flambéing your brand, don’t waste time trying to reason with them.
  7. React appropriately. Sometimes it’s not really a crisis, but a simple mistake. You can be overly-corporate, or you could do what The American Red Cross did and react in an appropriate, calm way. Think about your tone of voice. People don’t want to see their banks laughing and joking about cashpoint failures. Brands like O2 and Cineworld have used humour to handle social media storms, but humour is tricky. While many appreciated the human touch, some found it disrespectful. The important thing is to realise that you’re dealing with people. They don’t want a regurgitated corporate statement, they want to be heard.
  8. Don’t inflame the crisis. Think before you jump on hashtags, or broadcast a local issue to a global audience.
  9. Remember that everything you do will be scrutinized. People will take screenshots of social posts, case studies will be written about how you handled the crisis. People Googling your brand will see the crisis as it unfolded, months or years down the line. Work closely with your agencies to help with this after the crisis has passed.
  10. Monitor social media throughout the crisis so you can spot any new issues. Don’t forget that journalists may use Twitter to contact you; or that a seemingly ‘insignificant’ Tweeter, with only a few hundred followers, can still be an influencer.

Above all, try to avoid the crisis in the first place. Social listening will help you identify and manage issues before they become a crisis; and good preparation and rehearsal mean that if the crisis does hit, you’ll have the confidence and skills to navigate it.

Gemma is Polpeo’s Content Specialist. She develops the crisis storylines and writes social content for Polpeo. She is the principal voice of Polpeo on Twitter, and blogs on PR Examples and carrotcomms.co.uk/blog.

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