How to Leverage Digital Communications When Dealing With a Brand Crisis

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Over the past few weeks a handful of unflattering high profile public relations mishaps have dominated social media chatter. First there was the Pepsi ad that was roundly derided for co-opting and trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement in an effort to sell soda. Then there was the video of a man being forcibly removed from his seat on a United Airlines flight and dragged down the aisle off the plane as shocked passengers looked on.

Social media intensifies the spotlight on companies in crisis. Before the digital age, an event like what happened on the United flight would have been reported by the media and maybe discussed among friends. The reach of the crisis would have been limited to the daily news cycle and some word of mouth. The advent of social media, however, has changed that. Now, when a company does something wrong, it becomes a trending topic, making it nearly impossible for anyone who uses social media regularly to miss the news. As more people hear about the issue, it gets shared even more widely, creating something of a snowball effect. All of this can happen in a matter of hours. Before you know it, you have a full-blown public relations disaster on your hands.

The prevalence of mobile phones means that nearly everyone has a camera at his or her disposal at all times. Video footage of companies behaving badly only further intensifies the social media backlash because consumers can witness the events firsthand, making everything much more immediate and tangible.

No one can afford to believe that their company is immune from this type of fallout. True, the odds are that something on the scale of what happened at United will not happen at your company, but if it does and you’re unprepared, the ramifications can be huge. How can your company be prepared to handle a crisis if it occurs? What role should social media and digital PR play in both accepting responsibility for mistakes and spreading well-needed goodwill to consumers in the aftermath of the modern PR nightmare?

Here are the steps your company can take to minimize damage in the case of unflattering publicity, and a few ways to stay proactive in maintaining a positive brand image.

Have a plan

The first and most important step is to have a plan in place for managing a crisis. As the old expression goes, failure to plan is planning to fail. If disaster strikes and you’re caught without a plan, there’s no telling how communications will be handled. In which case, the communications that follow the initial incident could actually do more damage than the incident itself.

It’s necessary to put a protocol in place for how and when issues get escalated. In order to accomplish this, your team should outline the most likely scenarios that might lead to bad press. These might include a vocal customer or customers with complaints about your business, a product recall, an ethical violation, a personnel issue, or even an off-color remark made by an employee to the press.

Each possible scenario should have an associated escalation process so that, if the situation calls for it, it can be handled swiftly. A specific employee should be designated to speak to the press on behalf of the company, and that person should be someone who is poised and reasonable in the face of chaos.

Speak out

Sometimes the natural response to an onslaught of bad press can be to stay quiet and hope it all blows over. This is almost never what actually happens. The longer a company stays silent, the angrier the social media machine becomes. Consumers who are angry want their voices to be heard and acknowledged, and making them feel ignored will only add fuel to the fire. Besides which, if there is no official response from the company, that leaves a vacuum in the conversation that can easily be filled by other people. It’s better to speak on your own behalf. Doing this is a way for your company to redirect the conversation.

Speak quickly

For all these reasons, it’s always best to respond quickly in a publicity crisis. Do not underestimate how fast a bad situation can snowball on social media. Your company should put out a statement as soon as it’s possible to do so.

If, for whatever reason, you aren’t able to make a quick assessment of the situation, or the details are still unclear, your company should still at least acknowledge that you are aware of the situation and are in the process of investigating.

Construct a measured response

Speaking out quickly is critical, but sometimes in a rush to tamp down a story, companies end up offering half-hearted or even inflammatory apologies. Apologies are necessary in cases of clear wrongdoing, but a bad apology can do even more damage than the original incident did. The key thing is for companies to take responsibility for what went wrong, and to avoid shifting blame back onto their customers.

Fess up

Probably the worst thing you can do in a PR crisis is to be dishonest about what happened. The truth will likely come out eventually, and when it does, the bad publicity is going to get even worse. Honestly is the best approach. Own up to any wrongdoing and demonstrate that you acknowledge and understand why customers may be angry or upset.

Avoid corporate speak

Not even people in business like business lingo, so it’s a bit baffling that so many companies continue to use it. Any and all communication in a PR crisis should be clear and approachable. Corporate speak is off-putting and usually difficult to parse, so it’s best to avoid it when possible.

Pick your platforms

When you do put out a statement, make sure it’s accessible on the platforms where consumers are expressing their concerns. If it’s a bad Yelp review, reply directly to the Yelp user publicly so other users can see that your company takes complaints seriously and replies to them directly. If the issue is being shared and discussed on Facebook and Twitter, make sure to share your response on both those platforms.

Demonstrate a commitment to change

It isn’t enough to apologize and move on. While you don’t want to spend any more time than necessary mired in controversy, a big part of the process of moving forward involves demonstrating that your company is committed to improving in the future. The company needs to take clear, concrete steps to addressing the root cause of the issue.

For example, in the case of a company that has to issue a large-scale product recall, there must be a visible commitment to investigating how the problem that caused the recall occurred to begin with, and an accounting of how product safety mechanisms will be improved to safeguard against future issues.

Stay proactive

If you’ve done all of the above and weathered the crisis, that doesn’t mean the work is done. Digital PR is an ongoing process that requires consistently building thought leadership and positive brand presence.

Focus on the positive:

In order to recover from bad publicity, your company needs to put special emphasis on building goodwill. Doing so requires maintaining an active social presence that can showcase the many positive aspects of your brand. Focusing on customer service wins, employee achievements, and customer success stories are all examples of ways to do this.

Understand who’s in charge:

Many companies have suffered the embarrassment and PR fallout that comes when a disgruntled employee gets hold of the company Twitter account and tweets something inappropriate. There’s no way to guarantee that this type of thing will never happen to your company, because in order to run your social media accounts effectively it’s necessary to hand the reins over to company employees.

Still, you can minimize the chances of an internal social media hijacking by having an established chain of command, and limiting the number of users who are given access to your accounts to a trusted set of social media experts.

Bad publicity is part of doing business, and there’s a certain amount of customer complaint that is to be expected. Occasionally though, there is real wrongdoing or tone deafness that brands need to address in order to keep bad press from becoming a full blown PR disaster that threatens to sink the business. Having a plan for how to respond in the case of a crisis can minimize damage and ensure that the statements coming from the company are helping as opposed to doing even more damage. Staying proactive in building an active, engaged social presence is also key to maintaining goodwill for your brand.

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