The term “crisis communications” sounds big and scary. It makes you think of a recall of a dangerous product, FTC (Federal Trade Commission) problems or an attack by an attorney general. It requires preparation and thoughtful, informed handling, and should not be taken lightly. I’ve seen a shift in the impact of communication, however, and recommend that in today’s world all communications programs should be taken as seriously as crisis communication necessitates.
There’s an old saw in the military: In a crisis you rely on your training. And training implies planning. Thinking about how to respond in a crisis must be done beforehand, and the steps to take and who should take them, should be part of a predetermined plan. You don’t, after all, decide how to evacuate the building after the fire starts.
In the old days, you may have had to deal with a reporter or two badgering you at the door. Or figure out how to respond to a firm letter from an attorney. The world of social media has turned this on its head. Communicating with all of a company’s constituents has been revolutionized. This requires that companies reevaluate their approach, ranging from when big problems come up, right down through when the occasional unhappy customer posts on your Facebook page or Tweets at you. You always want to get ahead of bad news, but it’s even more important not to create it for yourself.
If you have not thought through how to handle these situations, here are some specific situations to think about.
An Actual Crisis
Forward-thinking companies anticipate potential future negative situations and prepare to minimize or negate their impact. Just as you should have a plan in place for the day the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) inspector knocks, everyone should know what to do when bad news comes calling. If you have laid the groundwork with your customers by creating trust, it can reinforce consumer confidence.
Your crisis communications team should already be in place before you need one. This involves identifying the areas of expertise and responsibility that will make up the team, and establishing a protocol to follow.
Areas of responsibility are likely to include:
• Regulatory compliance
• Manufacturing QA
• Public relations
• Brand manager
Decide in advance how you will communicate and establish timeframes for your staff’s responses. Sometimes it’s best not to make a statement, and the group will need to come to consensus on that. But if you do respond, do it quickly—within a day or two at most. If you still have not issued a statement within a week it may be best not to—you do not want to appear that you are fumbling for a response. Choose an authority to make final decisions if some team members are not available.
Since a timely response is important, it is a good idea to have some draft language developed and agreed upon in advance for various situations that may arise. It’s far better to have it and not need it than the reverse.
Think beyond external communications—internal is just as important. The switchboard person should be given instructions right away as to how to route any calls. Everyone likely to be asked questions should have specific responses, along with instructions not to elaborate. And everyone in house likely to hear about the situation should know what’s going on, and what you are doing about it.
A crisis FAQ is a useful main document from which all other communications are pulled. It can include:
• Acknowledgement of the crisis
• Details about the incident
• How the company found out
• Who was alerted, when and how
• Specific actions taken in response
• Real or potential effects
• Steps taken to prevent future occurrence
• Staff contact information
Crisis communication isn’t just about challenges visible in the outside world. Internal affairs call for forethought, as well.
For example, if an important change happens at the company, such as a key staff member leaving abruptly, don’t let the rumor mill get started. Make a clear, yet reassuring statement right away, because gossip loves a vacuum. It’s always better to be gracious, and wish the departing staff member the best in future endeavors. And make sure the social media account passwords are changed when staff members leave; make sure you control the dialogue and not a possibly disgruntled ex-employee. The retailer H&M once fired 60 staff members, some of whom tweeted gems, such as, “We’re tweeting live from HR where we’re all being fired! Exciting!” and “Just overheard our marketing director (he’s staying, folks) ask, ‘How do I shut down Twitter?’”
These are not complete checklists, just examples of the types of things to think about as you evaluate and update your communications programs. And one overarching rule of thumb: Keep it brief. Verbosity can look like dissembling, and inadvertently reveal more than you intended.
Social Media Concerns
Social media has not just revolutionized the speed of the spread of communication, it has changed its nature. Today more than ever, what starts as a relatively minor complaint can become a crisis if not handled well and promptly.
Social media can amplify ill-considered statements out of all proportion. What in the past might have been a snide aside muttered to a like-minded colleague can now take on ogre-like proportions if broadcasted with the social media bullhorn. Social media feels intimate but it’s not; it’s best not to Tweet something you wouldn’t feel comfortable with seeing on a billboard.
Earlier in the history of this new medium, a company’s social media responsibilities were often delegated to someone, such as an unpaid intern. Today that’s asking for trouble. Think about the communication style of the social media users you do choose. You don’t want to give the company’s Twitter credentials to that staff member with the sometimes inappropriate sense of humor, or you could end up with your own version of the DiGiorno Pizza #WhyIStayed disaster (chiming in on a conversation about domestic violence with #WhyIStayed “You had pizza.” Major social media fail!).
Pay attention to the “voice” of your social media. It says who, not what, your company is, so make it a conscious choice. I always suggest people check out the Riot Fest Twitter Guy as a distinct example of just the right personality for that particular company. @RiotFest is somewhat of a celebrity for his running jokes and playful tone, all the while doing an excellent job conveying information followers want and need. Find the voice that is right for your company.
Consumers are making more customer complaints via social media today than ever before, because it usually works. With all the hoop jumping required to be connected to an actual person on the telephone at companies today, most people don’t even want to try, so they tweet or post on Facebook.
Here are five rules on how a company can respond:
1. Address it publically—acknowledge immediately or “yes, we realize (something) happened.”
2. Accept responsibility—Apologize. People are able to forgive much more easily when there is a prompt mea culpa. Cover-ups and blaming others fan the flames.
3. Offer direct contact to resolve negative situations—Say what needs to be said to answer questions and allay concerns of observers, then take the conversation with the main party offline for direct resolution.
4. Demonstrate that you authentically care—I read an article recently about an author who responds to every one star review on Amazon.com, and offers to refund their money. Apparently he has sent three people a check, but won many more fans and customers because he has demonstrated that he cares.
5. Never underestimate the power of self-deprecating humor—The most effective responses are timely, they are personal and they use humor.
While this isn’t a complete guide to not creating a crisis via social media or handling communications in a crisis, this should start you thinking about your communication programs and what you may need to review and revise them. If your team doesn’t include someone who already knows all of this, that’s the first thing you should correct. NIE
The Shelton Group is a boutique public relations and marketing agency working exclusively in the dietary supplements and natural products industry since 1990. For more information, visit www.sheltongrouppr.com Suzanne Shelton has provided public relations services to both international and domestic dietary supplement and natural products manufacturers, suppliers and associations.