What’s it about?
Communicate in a Crisis (2019) looks at how brands may communicate in a crisis in a sensitive and successful way. Author Kate Hartley explains why customers have such a strong emotional attachment to companies and why social media is a threat to businesses. She also gives helpful tips on how to carry out a crisis communication plan.
About the author
Kate Hartley has worked in public relations, reputation management, and crisis communications for over 25 years. She is the co-founder of Pompeo, an organization that teaches brands how to handle online disasters.
Consumers form strong bonds with brands that are genuine and transparent:
Let’s start with a narrative about a dissatisfied consumer.
Ashley is a Florida-based environmental activist. A few years ago, Ashley needed a new car, but it couldn’t just be any car. If she was going to drive at all, it had to be in an environmentally friendly vehicle. As a result, she chose a Volkswagen. The company was known for being ecologically conscious. What could go wrong?
Ashley was pleased with her purchase until a scandal surfaced. Volkswagen had exaggerated the amount of carbon dioxide discharged into the environment by their vehicles. The true figure was much higher than what the corporation had initially stated.
Ashley felt deceived by the brand she had worked so hard to promote. As a result, she relied on social media, posting about her disappointment.
The essential point is that consumers form close bonds with genuine and transparent brands.
In today’s environment, consumers have a close relationship with brands. When we like a product or service, we form an emotional bond with it. We pledge our allegiance to them, expecting the same in return.
These are known as passion brands, and they are those that, for whatever reason, connect with us. Once we’re hooked on a brand, we’re committed to it for the rest of our lives. For example, if you tried to persuade a Mac user to convert to a PC, you would probably fail miserably.
This is because brands are an integral component of our social identity. They make us feel intelligent or fashionable, or they may reflect a cause we care about, such as the environment. Consider why you purchased your favorite pair of sneakers: you’re probably a fan of the brand’s ethos and enjoy the sensation of being linked with a cool product.
The difficulty is that the brands we support can potentially fail us. Facebook is a fantastic illustration of this, as it is a site that many of us use to keep our private chats, memories, and images private.
In 2018, the social media behemoth betrayed its users’ confidence by sharing their personal information with Cambridge Analytica without their consent. Users were understandably enraged. In fact, according to a 2018 poll conducted by Axios and SurveyMonkey, one in every five people in the United Kingdom canceled their account as soon as the controversy broke.
Every brand will face a crisis at some point, and when it does, it must be prepared to respond. In the paragraphs that follow, we’ll take a look at this.
Brands can elicit customer fury in a variety of ways:
Harper Lee, an American novelist, published a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird in 2015. It was dubbed Set a Watchman by her.
Initially, fans were ecstatic. However, after reading the book, they saw one significant difference: Lee had turned Atticus Finch, the main character and hero, from a civil rights fighter to a racist.
Lee’s admirers were inconsolably upset. Atticus had always been a symbol of the civil rights movement. It was upsetting to learn that he had flaws. Fans, feeling misled, loudly chastised Lee and even questioned her mental health.
Authors may enrage their readers, and marketers can do the same with their customers.
The essential takeaway is that brands can elicit customer fury in various ways.
According to Daniel Karlsson and Lucas Rodriguez of Umea University in Sweden, Brands generate a set of values that appeal to people deeply. Consumers take it personally when businesses behave against these ideals.
That’s why, when the fans of To Kill a Mockingbird found out that their cherished hero was a bigot, they felt robbed – as if something had been taken away from them.
Another way businesses might create indignation is by mucking up a widely-used service. For example, in the United Kingdom, many rail companies abruptly modified their schedules in 2018. As a result, services were regularly postponed or canceled, sometimes for weeks at a time.
There was a significant response against this. Unhappy passengers took to social media to share photos of overloaded trains and people jostling for space at crowded stops. For weeks following, the incident was front-page news. So, what happened to make this such a major story?
The anguish of delayed transportation, on the other hand, is something that everyone can relate to. Trying to travel to and from work while trains are out of service is something that every commuter has had to deal with at some point.
More significantly, the plot was intriguing. Southern Rail was the villain, and the general population was at the mercy of a large corporation. People enjoy a good controversy, and PR professionals should be aware of this.
Just like the brands we wear, sharing our anger with others may be a way of sharing a sense of identity. With the emergence of social media, consumers now have all of the tools they need to express their dissatisfaction with brands publicly. They’re not going to give up until they’ve won.
Consumers can use social media to bring brands down:
The author had a bad online experience a few years ago.
She had published a blog post on a Christmas advertising that John Lewis, a big UK retailer, had released. The advertisement depicted a dog left outside in a kennel surrounded by snow while its owners remained nestled away inside.
Animal rights activists were enraged, accusing the retailer of celebrating animal cruelty. Many of them resorted to social media and formed a Facebook advocacy group. This eventually drew enough media attention for John Lewis to agree to reshoot the ad’s ending.
The protestors, however, did not stop there. They quickly turned on anyone who appeared to be supporting the ad, such as the author. Her blog post didn’t decide whether the dog should have been outside; rather, it looked at the power of a small group of activists to derail a multinational corporation.
Despite this, the author was publicly abused online: her personal information was posted on a campaign group, and she received cruel messages from many strangers.
Consumers now can influence a company’s behavior in the digital age. Many people make it their mission to dethrone unwieldy brands that have betrayed them.
This is partly due to the ease with which consumers may express their displeasure on social media. When customers are enraged by a brand’s behavior, they might resort to Facebook or Twitter to express their feelings to the rest of the world.
This isn’t always good news for brands: when they make a mistake, they’re held accountable in front of the public and risk permanently damaging their reputation.
As the author notes, today’s businesses are subjected to unprecedented levels of consumer scrutiny. And they are judged for every action they take, whether right or evil. Do you recall Ashley’s Volkswagen experience? She held the company to a high ethical standard and couldn’t just let it slip when they were shown to be dishonest.
There is no such thing as an ideal business. You’ll have to deal with consumer backlash at some point, which is why it’s crucial to be prepared. We’ll look at how brands may put together a communications plan to implement when a crisis occurs in the next few paragraphs.
Defining what a “crisis” means for your brand is the first stage in crisis communication planning:
What do you mean when you say “crisis”?
This is an issue that every company should consider. It may seem obvious, but you must first recognize that you are in a crisis before implementing your crisis plan.
The main lesson is that establishing what a “crisis” means for your brand is the first stage in crisis communication strategy.
According to Jonathan Hemus, a crisis management professional, one definition of a crisis for a firm is something that prevents you from running your primary business.
For example, in the United Kingdom in 2018, KFC – a fried chicken fast-food franchise – ran out of chicken… Yes, it’s true.
Some may argue that this wasn’t even a crisis. Sure, some clients may have had to seek alternative accommodations, but no one was injured. If, on the other hand, your core company is selling chicken and you can’t get your hands on it, you’re dealing with a catastrophe.
So, how can you figure out if your business is in trouble?
One technique determines the difference between a problem and a full-fledged catastrophe. We can suppose that troubles are things that don’t influence your company’s ability to function; they’re just something you have to manage as part of your day-to-day operation if we reverse Hemus’ description.
Some companies, for example, claim to be in a “permanent state of crisis,” in which they are continually solving difficulties. But, in reality, they’re dealing with issues that are so common that they’ve become ordinary. These difficulties are important, but they do not prevent operating.
Of course, various organizations will interpret a crisis differently. That’s why it’s critical to develop your own set of criteria for determining when you’re in a crisis.
An injury, a threat to public safety, or an incident that could result in financial loss or damage to the firm’s brand could all be considered crisis conditions for your company. Other factors may be more closely related to the ideals of your firm. For example, if animal components are discovered in a vegan cheese brand, it is likely to be a crisis rather than an issue.
So, the next time you’re confronted with a potential catastrophe, pause for a moment to consider your options. If there isn’t a public emergency or a threat to your reputation or cash, you’re unlikely to face a serious disaster.
Having a plan in place for when a crisis occurs is critical to your brand’s survival:
In today’s world, businesses cannot afford to ignore the hazards posed by digital threats.
For example, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) was hit by a serious cybersecurity breach in May 2017. The organization’s IT system was hacked, and it was used by hospitals and medical clinics all around the country. The criminals also wanted money to re-establish the system.
The attack hit four NHS institutions on the first day of the crisis. Over 600 people had been harmed a week later.
According to a National Audit Office audit, the crisis could have been avoided if the NHS had been well prepared. The system would not have been as exposed to hackers if they had maintained their IT infrastructure and updated their security software.
The essential lesson is that having a plan for a crisis is critical to your brand’s survival.
Although it is hard to foresee when or where a crisis may strike, firms must be ready. So, let’s have a look at how you may accomplish this.
Selecting your crisis team is the first stage in building a pre-crisis plan. Representatives from all business divisions, including HR, legal, compliance, risk, and IT, should be present. You should also include teams from PR and marketing, who will be in charge of informing your external audience about the situation.
Make sure everyone’s responsibilities are very clear. You’ll need to know who has the authority to activate a crisis plan, as well as who is ultimately in charge of making decisions.
Second, brainstorm with your team about every imaginable circumstance that could harm your company’s reputation. Sort these possibilities into two categories: kind and threat level.
A data breach that affects only a few people and does not expose any financial information, for example, could be classified as Stage 1: low threat. A breach that exposes the financial data of thousands of clients, on the other hand, could be categorized as Stage 4: a high level of threat.
Finally, for each threat level, decide on the proper level of response. It’s possible that you won’t even need to intervene in some cases. However, it’s critical to keep a close eye on an issue so that you’re prepared to intervene if things go out of hand.
As a result, limiting the impact of a crisis is all in the planning. Businesses must be fast to react, aware, and ready to act when necessary.
Brands must respond swiftly and properly in the case of a crisis:
British Airways had difficulty in May of 2017.
The airline’s computer systems broke as hundreds of families traveled on vacation over the half-term break. As a result, 1,000 flights were impacted, and 75,000 people’s vacation plans were disrupted.
The airline issued a cryptic statement in response to numerous passengers’ demands for an explanation. It was disclosed that their IT systems had failed due to a lack of power at their UK data center and that they were conducting an inquiry to determine exactly what had happened.
The energy corporation in charge of the local power system, on the other hand, responded to British Airways.
In this situation, British Airways made two major errors. To begin with, by rushing to respond, the airline distorted the truth: they were just terrified and blamed the local power grid.
Second, the airline failed to communicate clearly with its consumers about the situation. As a result, news organizations began to fill in the gaps.
According to a report published by the Times, shortly after the crisis, the system failure was caused by a British Airways IT technician mistakenly turning off the power supply. Was this the case? Who knows what will happen. But that merely added to the confusion.
As you learned in an earlier paragraph, consumers use social media to convey their worries during a crisis. As a result, firms in crisis are frequently bombarded with messages from enraged customers.
Knowing how to manage the number of internet reactions is an important component of crisis management. For example, near the top of your social media page and website, you should post regular updates on what you’re doing to remedy the problem. People won’t have to come to you for information this way.
When replying to inquiries directly, it’s a good idea to prioritize the ones you react to first based on their importance. Prepare a couple of boilerplate responses as well. If numerous people ask the same question simultaneously, you can use this template to react more quickly.
One last piece of advice? Make certain you have all of your data straight. Consider the case of British Airways: if they had waited to disseminate proper information rather than hurrying to respond, they could have avoided a lot of trouble.
In a crisis, truthful communication is critical for establishing confidence:
The author attended a communications directors’ conference in 2018. Kate Adie, a well-known journalist, and author spoke there.
Adie has covered some of the most significant worldwide news events of the twentieth century. In 1989, she reported from Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and in 1980, she carried news of the Iranian Embassy siege in London to our television screens.
Adie discussed how the atmosphere in which news breaks has evolved during her address at the conference. Information is twisted, and lies are readily shared due to the rise of social media and fake news. As a result, journalists’ ability to present the facts is more crucial than ever.
All communicators, like journalists, must pay attention to the facts. If brands want to keep their audience’s trust during and after a crisis, they must communicate clearly and accurately. “Audiences appreciate the candor,” Adie says.
Adie follows four journalism principles that are also relevant for brands in storytelling.
In a crisis, communication is crucial. The four steps are getting to the story, finding the facts, verifying the facts, and reporting the facts. Let’s take a look at each one individually.
First and foremost, let’s get to the story. Do not rely on external parties for information in a crisis. Attempt to locate the source of the problem and speak with those affected. It would be best if you saw what’s going on firsthand to get your facts straight.
Next, gather information. During a crisis, emotions are running high, and rumors can spread as people try to understand what’s going on. Brands should remove all of it and look for accurate information to describe what happened.
Then double-check the facts. Please make sure you’re 100% convinced that what you’re saying to your audience is correct before speaking with them. If you go public with something you believe to be real but later discover wrong, you will lose your audience’s faith and trust.
Finally, to avoid misunderstandings, present the facts in simple, unambiguous terms. This is especially true for brand leaders. As we’ll see in the next paragraph, telling the truth straight is critical to sustaining a positive client relationship.
A crisis should be navigated with clarity, empathy, and decisiveness by leaders:
Winston Churchill stated to the House of Commons after he became Prime Minister in 1940. He declared his aim to bring the British people together and win the Second World War.
Churchill outlined an unambiguous goal for the country to reach and a road map for how to get there. As described by crisis expert Jonathan Hemus, setting a strategic intent is something that all corporate executives should undertake at the commencement of a crisis.
So, what is the best way for leaders to define their strategic intent? Imagine what things will look like six months down the road as a good place to start. Will your stakeholders be pleased with the way you handled the crisis?
It could be beneficial to lay down your strategic objective and desired outcome in a clear, straightforward language. This will help you and your team concentrate on a single goal.
If you’re a restaurant owner, for example, and you’ve had to close your doors due to a flood, your strategic goal might be to keep your customer’s loyalty and business in the long run. As a result, every action you and your workers take will be aimed towards keeping those clients’ loyalty.
Empathy is another important part of effective leadership. When things go wrong, leaders should communicate with their audience as people. This entails speaking in a sensitive, conversational tone and avoiding jargon and corporate terminology.
Knowing when to apologize is also part of demonstrating empathy. When his company was accountable for an accident, Nick Varney, the CEO of UK entertainment park Alton Towers, did exactly that.
The Smiler, a roller coaster, was destroyed in 2015. Sixteen individuals were hurt, and two teenage girls had their legs amputated. Alton Towers was fined £5 million a year later.
Varney took a personal approach to the disaster from the start, speaking with sympathy and sadness. He expressed regret to those hurt and accepted full responsibility for the accident. He also devised a strategy to ensure that anything similar did not occur again.
You, as a leader, will set the tone for how your company handles a crisis. It’s crucial to be human and be smart and strategic in your decisions.