A blueprint for crisis management In today’s brand hostile world

The recent crises to hit the Volkswagon and Talk Talk brands highlight the importance of effective crisis management in the corporate world today.  The issue of crisis management has certainly grown in importance in recent years and is an earning an increasing share of attention (SOA) in the Boardroom. The driving force behind this development is that in the digital age the balance of power online is continually shifting from brands to the consumer. That shift in power has led to increased consumer empowerment against brands that can fast result in crisis management issues.

The traditional approach to crisis management has been through an annual crisis communications plan. I believe however we should always continually challenge traditional thinking. Otherwise what happens is you end up becoming what I call “comfortably numb”. When you do that you lose market position and competitive advantage. The act of writing an annual crisis communications plan in truth is only useful in so far as it gets the person writing the plan to think about the various types of crisis that could impact on their brand.

The weaknesses with annual crisis management plans are that risk is not static by its very nature. Risk is dynamic and changing constantly in today’s world. The implication arising from this is that your crisis management plan cannot be a static document. It needs to be regularly updated yet how often does that happen? In addition even with the best will in the world it will not cover every possible type of crisis that could hit your brand.

I believe an alternative and smarter approach can be adopted. The annual crisis management could be used more smartly as an organisational development tool to build organisational capacity to cope with a crisis while also simultaneously being a catalyst for driving a change in internal culture to reduce the risk of a brand crisis. This approach is supported by the fact that if we stop and think about it we begin to realise that a sizeable proportion of brand reputational risk today stems from the internal culture of a brand or organisation. This approach however is one for planning in the medium to long term. It does not address how to prepare for and manage a crisis when it happens. With this in mind I offer below a six point bite-sized management blueprint for protecting brand reputation in a crisis situation.

Bite-Sized Management Tip One

Prevention is always better than cure. Conduct regular crisis audits with employees across all departments and all grades. This could take the form of focus groups, short yet focused online surveys, inclusion on agendas at team meetings or a combination of these methods. By regular I mean at least twice annually because existing risk is constantly evolving and new risks are constantly emerging so it cannot just be an annual corporate exercise.

You cannot manage what you do not know. To manage brand crisis and reputation risk you first need to identify them. In reality no one employee or manager can identify all brand crisis and reputation risks on their own. This means for it to work and be sustainable it needs to be a collaborative approach across all grades and departments. Employees at lower grades, especially on the frontline, will often see crisis risks that senior management may not have sight of.  Brainstorm collectively on how to mitigate, monitor and manage brand reputation crisis risks identified.

All of these actions together will help manage brand reputation and crisis risk effectively from the outset in a collaborative way that engages all employees. Internal communication is critical to this. Crisis management planning should never be seen as just being a job for the “PR department” It demands an organisation wide approach and your executive leadership team should work collectively to continually promote and strengthen this approach and culture within your corporate brand.

Bite-Sized Management Tip Two 

In a crisis often you will find the real challenge is not so much managing the crisis itself but rather the emotions generated by the crisis. The issue here is emotion can and will cloud logical thinking in a crisis. What this means in practice is your brand communications need to focus on neutralising the emotions generated by the crisis with the public and your key stakeholders. This can be done in a variety of ways including careful choice of language, showing empathy through body language as well as what you say and apologising early etc. There is only one truth in the heat of a crisis and that is the truth of public perception. What the public perceive regardless of whether it is right or wrong or justified is the only truth that matters because that is the truth and reality you have to manage through your crisis communications at that point in time.

Bite-Sized Management Tip Three

Your crisis communications plan should identify who should be informed about the crisis, how they will be informed and when. Contact details such as mobile and home phone numbers should be kept updated as they frequently change. Remember a crisis happens when you least expect it to. It is the simple things like this that can have the biggest impact and waste valuable time in a crisis. This is why I believe the annual crisis management plan should be a living document and updated regularly as opposed to a document that is only reviewed annually for corporate governance. In addition you should identify in advance who in your organisation are the best people to be your public spokesperson on each potential crisis scenario.

Bite-Sized Management Tip Four

Carry out mock media interviews on the crisis scenarios identified with the spokespersons in the above tip. These should be regularly and incorporate soft and aggressive journalistic questioning styles. This s to ensure they are confident and prepared for all types of media interview in a crisis.

When carrying out mock interviews, look to see whether your spokespeople look nervous.  Does their body language match what they are actually saying verbally? Does their body language communicate confidence and control in a time of crisis? If body language does not match verbal delivery, the public and your stakeholders will subconsciously pick up on this. This means that confidence in what they are saying will be eroded. Invest in regular body language coaching 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 will subconsciously weaken public confidence in message delivery as they can make a spokesperson sound unsure and erode public confidence.

Bite-Sized Management Tip Five

In terms of social media management for the crisis first start by listening to sentiment towards your brand when the crisis happens compared to your baseline sentiment analysis. Look at the choice of wording used by the user and punctuation (such as an excessive number of punctuation marks etc which may indicate anger, frustration or that the issue) Make a judgement on the emotional intensity of the poster before you respond – don’t just dive in and respond.  In your responses show empathy, be genuine, apologise early, stick to known facts on the crisis, don’t speculate and don’t feed trolls. Twitter is good for driving website traffic through links due to its 140 character limit so use this to channel primarily to further detailed information on the crisis on your website.

Bite-Sized Management Tip Six

Always conduct a post crisis evaluation. Capture key learning. Employee turnover can lead to a loss of expertise. An employee who managed a crisis well may leave you need to capture their learning and knowledge so future employees can apply it. You also need to build your organisational capacity to cope with a crisis through this way. Consider targeted Corporate Social Responsibility and Community Engagement activity post crisis to repair damaged trust in your brand and help rebuild it again after the crisis. Any Corporate Social Responsibility or community engagement activity post crisis should however be aligned with the values of your brand rather than being done for the sake of being done post crisis.