Crisis Communications in a Social Era - SMCKC Recap

Posted 11/22/2016 9:51 AM by Krista Poore

We as marketers, managers, and PR departments are inundated almost daily with forms of “crisis” and organizations trying to respond in a timely and appropriate manner. Now that social media channels allow for immediate reactions, responses, and ridicule we have been tasked with managing the situation in a space where we exercise pseudo-control.

So what do we do now? How do we avoid what appears to be inevitable? Thankfully Morningstar Communications provided examples of great crisis communication as well as several tips on how to plan, execute, and manage communications before, during, and after a crisis.

The following is a summary of the presentation given by Tricia McKim, VP and Brian Van Note, Account Executive. All examples are from their presentation, which can be accessed here.  

What is considered a crisis?

While a crisis is often defined through the eye of the beholder (like the lack of Nacho Helmets at a KC Royals game), there are several types that we can keep a lookout for:

  • Deliberate Corporate Action: Layoffs, a plant closing, new company ownership, etc.
  • Smoldering: These crises haven’t had a light shone on them yet, but are slinking slowly out from behind the shadows. The people within the organization are aware of the problem but it hasn’t gone mainstream yet. An example could be rumors about a boss, or financial mismanagement.
  • National/International: natural disasters, illness (ex. Zika), or terrorist attacks
  • Operational: When equipment doesn’t work, a site crashes, there’s an accident, etc. (ex. Southwest grounded flights)
  • Social Media: untimely post, mix-up of personal and professional accounts 

How do we prepare?

Ok, we get it, there are numerous ways we can mess up our crisis communications. Now help us!

  • Create a written plan:  this way there’s a documented strategy of what to do, who’s doing what, when to stop engaging, etc.
  • Engage our communications leader(s) – who is going to own this initiative?
  • Conduct scenario planning – think through everything; what can possibly go wrong?
  • Determine roles (employee roles vs. media roles) – who will be doing the communication and who from outside our team will be involved [don’t forget though: Crisis communications management is never a ‘one and done’ deal; it’s ongoing and it’s everyone’s job to remain honest and transparent]
  • Define key stakeholders – is our effected audience the employees within the organization, or is it the investors and board of directors with high stakes in the game?
  • Craft messages in advance – from the hypothetical scenarios, develop messages to be used on all appropriate channels, custom to each channel (social, email, mail, PR, etc.).
  • Know what channels to use based on the stakeholders
  • Train our teams – this way they stand at the ready to address crises if when they happen

Note that a crisis doesn’t have to be in a corporate setting. Some of the greatest blunders have happened when people didn’t pay attention to automated messaging or social posting. Or in the case of Southwest, forgetting to address customers on one of your social channels. 

Southwest Airlines Social Media Management

Southwest Airlines Instagram Blunder

Crisis is upon us, now what?

Wait, we are in full blown crisis mode, the above recommendations aren’t enough! Not to fear, Morningstar has us covered here as well. The following are 5 tips for communicating amidst a crisis and examples of what to and what not to do:

  • Deliver accurate and transparent information
    • We are all familiar with US swimmer Ryan Lochte and his exaggeration of the truth. While he stated he was robbed at gunpoint in Rio, it was merely drunken shenanigans. There can be severe consequences when we turn fact into fantasy; and in Ryan’s case that means suspension from competition.
  • Remember, tone matters
    • The American Red Cross posted the Tweet shown below. It’s clear that they as an organization didn’t create the post and they immediately apologized as an organization and then the individual responded as well with self-deprecating humor.  They owned up to their mistake, sincerely apologized, and then made light of the situation. 
American Red Cross Tweets
  • Take decisive action quickly
    • Kitchen Aid also experienced a mix-up of personal and organizational Twitter accounts and had a politically charged Tweet posted on their page. Within [minutes] the Director responded acknowledging the issue and offered to speak publically about it. 
Kitchen Aid Tweets
  • Never argue or put down your audience
    • An Applebee’s server posted a disheartening note left on a receipt of a colleague stating: “I only give God 10%; why should I give you 18%?” When it had made its way around Facebook Applebee’s responded with a scripted note regarding the incident and used it to respond to all the complaints. Not only that, but there were heated arguments over what a server should and should not be able to post. If you can’t respond appropriately, sometimes it’s best to just walk away. 
Applebee's Facebook Blunder
  • Strengthen/soften/separate
    • As an avid Royals fan, and nacho lover, when you attend a game and wait in line for a nacho helmet only to be turned away, disappointment (and hungry) doesn’t even begin to cover it. From there, a fan took matters into his own hands and tweeted about the injustice. The [food company] responded by asking for additional information (where he was sitting), acknowledged the problem, and rectified it by hand delivering a nacho helmet to the fan. After this, the fan tweeted again stating that they had done right by him, and then happily ate his nachos. 
Royals Nacho Helmet Tweets

Wrapping up the conversation

A common question in the midst of crisis is “when do we stop addressing questions/concerns/dousing the fire an internet troll constantly flames?”

  • When the noise of everything dies down you can discontinue the conversation. Now, if the conversation is shining a positive light on you, feel free to continue it.
  • In reference to the internet troll, if it’s actually kicking up dust then we should address him/her. If, however, the troll has very little influence and is inconsolable the best practice is to separate ourselves.
  • The only wrong thing to do would be to delete the thread, or worse the social account (ex. Cincinnati zoo with Harambe the gorilla) This simply puts blinders on the problem, it doesn’t fix anything and often causes a secondary crisis: one of brand distrust.

What can we do today?

This is great information Krista, but we don’t have a crisis right now. Well then you’re sitting pretty! While you may not be in crisis mode now it’s always best to start preparing sooner rather than later. Here are 3 tasks you can begin to tackle today:

  • Monitor: your own brand’s current communications, happenings, any items that may be considered “smoldering”
  • Plan, refresh, practice: if you don’t have a crisis communications strategy, make one. If you have one, revisit it and update it. And in both instances, practice, practice, practice.
  • Stay engaged with the news cycle: be sure there are no untimely/insensitive messages scheduled to go out (across all channels)