Crisis Management in the age of digital brandalism

The huge explosion of social media, particularly in the last few years, has been something of a double edged sword for SME brands and the corporate world. On the one hand it has brought new opportunities for stakeholder engagement. Yet on the other hand it has fuelled a revival and growth in digital activism. Today SME brands and the corporate world struggle with the best way to respond to social media attacks and campaigns by activist and pressure groups in this new environment.

The truth is we are now in an era where the ethical behaviour of SME brands as well as corporations is under increasing public scrutiny. Now more than at any other time in history. Social media has been a key enabler and driver of that change. But it is not the only driver. There has been another lesser observed driver that has brought about this change.

Youth unemployment rates and the rising gap between incomes in most countries globally have also, I believe, been underlying contributing factors. In the UK, for example, youth unemployment is currently at its highest level since records began in 1992. Spain currently at the time of writing has a similar youth unemployment problem.

The reason that this is a significant factor is because as inequality levels rise in a society, through a rising gap between incomes, levels of fear and mistrust between people in that society also typically increase in direct correlation to that. And that is significant because it can then become a catalyst for increased activism on social, economic and technological issues by citizens in a society or country. Young people, who are the consumers of tomorrow, are actually today’s real digital natives.

The implications of these changes for SME brands are profound. In this new digital environment how can SME brands best manage and prepare for a crisis fuelled by social media? I offer below my top 10 tips for crisis management and planning in an age where activism is on the increase against brands due to growing citizen and pressure group empowerment through social media and technology.

Implement deep and comprehensive monitoring. Monitor through software all online mentions of your brand or keywords associated with your business or industry. Assess public opinion on key social, economic, technological issues and link this back to your business or industry. What do these changes in public sentiment on social, political, technological and economic issues mean for you, your brand and your industry? Analyse this data regularly – at least weekly. Identify the trends public opinion is heading in on these issues. Do trend analysis because public opinion on issues in a society never remains static. It is constantly changing. The earlier you know about these changes the sooner you can prepare ahead of your competition. Be prepared in advance to react to those changes through early and deep monitoring intelligence of sentiment on social media.

Seek to align internal culture with stakeholder expectations. Narrow the gap between these two things and you automatically by default reduce reputational risks in doing so. Brand monitoring intelligence should aid you with this. An external perspective and assessment of your organisational or SME brand culture can also add value.

Online monitoring intelligence should be communicated quickly and effectively, sometimes even in real-time, to individual business unit managers. The monitoring intelligence should not just be kept by the Corporate Communications team. Managing reputational risks is an organisation wide process and so communicating monitoring intelligence early to business unit managers is a key part of that. Early input from all relevant business unit managers and professionals in the organisation from the bottom up is essential in both identifying the risks and implementing effective and sustainable change to reduce those risks.

Identify in advance who the best people in your organisation are to comment on each identified potential crisis. The best person (or persons) are those with the right depth of experience and knowledge about the issue which is the subject of the crisis. They need to understand all the dimensions of the crisis to give them the confidence to handle robust media questioning. Hold mock media interviews at least every quarter. Incorporate “soft” and “hard” journalistic questioning and interrogation on the crisis issue.

When doing mock interviews always look to see if your spokespeople look nervous or unsure of themselves? Does their body language match what they are actually saying? Does their body language communicate confidence and control of the crisis? If body language does not match verbal delivery the public and your stakeholders will subconsciously pick up on this and confidence in what they are saying will be eroded. Invest in body language training for spokespersons if required. Similarly, aim to eliminate filler words from interview question responses such as “um”, “am” and “uh” etc. Overuse of filler words can subconsciously weaken public confidence in message delivery. They can make a spokesperson sound unsure in their media response. Consequently, in mock media interviews on crisis scenarios look out for filler phrases and aim to eliminate and reduce them through sensitive coaching techniques. Hold mock crisis interviews regularly – even when there is no crisis. Because practice makes perfect and you can never predict when a crisis will arise. Be prepared and practice in advance for perfection in a media interview when a crisis does happen. Identify and practice for the most likely crisis scenarios to impact your business.

The key messages to each stakeholder group for each identified potential crisis should be clearly defined from the very outset. How will you communicate with each stakeholder group? Different stakeholders have different communication preferences. What is an effective communications channel for one stakeholder group may not necessarily be effective for another stakeholder group. What messages and reassurances will each identified stakeholder group want to hear? There will be messages that will be for all stakeholders and other messages that will just be for individual stakeholders. Identify in advance what will be the individual and collective messages to communicate in a crisis scenario so that information flow is done quickly and securely to ease concerns.

In terms of the general public at large they need to understand the crisis and your response. And understanding it means your messaging on social media and traditional broadcast media needs to be short, consistent, accurate and integrated. It should be in simple language and not include technical terms or words that the general public may not be familiar with.

While the slant and emphasis of key messages to each stakeholder group may differ slightly the overall communication and messaging on the crisis should be consistent. This is essential in a crisis communications situation to promote trust and confidence in both your brand and your communications on the crisis itself.

It can be a good idea to have your crisis communication plan audited by an experienced crisis communications consultant. They may be able to identify areas you have overlooked. Weaknesses in your crisis communication plan can be identified and strengthened in advance to minimise reputational damage in the event of a crisis. An “outsider” can usually always see things you can’t and in this way they can help add value and strengthen your crisis communications management plan.

Attitudes in society, political change and technological developments happen at a rapid rate. As they change what you will find is that they will naturally create the potential for new activism and crisis risks. It is therefore important to recognise this will reduce the effectiveness of your current crisis communications plan. That is why crisis communications planning should be a continual review process and this is a critical success factor in minimising brand reputational risk. A crisis communications plan should never be written and then “put on a shelf until it is needed” because it is (or should be) a living and evolving guidance document.