The nature of crisis communications is changing.
The rise of technology has not only increased the immediacy of news but also given more power to people in terms of how and where they consume that news and how they voice their opinions about it.
This means that while some of the long standing cornerstones of crisis communication remain firmly in place, organisations need to adapt and change some of their approaches.
In this blog we outline how crisis communication is evolving and the nine new rules brands must follow.
The definition of what constitutes a crisis seems to have shifted in recent times.
Typically when we think of the word crisis we think of events that result in the loss of life, significant injuries, data breaches and major IT failures.
But now, with social media causing bad news to travel quicker than ever before, much smaller events are often described as a crisis and have the potential to cause widespread damage.
'Social media causes bad news to travel quicker than ever before and much smaller events are now often described as a crisis and have the potential to cause widespread damage. Via @mediafirstltd http://bit.ly/2KDEVqX
Now video footage of a customer being treated badly, misjudged posts, bad association and ill-judged comments have the power to send an organisation in to a crisis tailspin almost instantly.
This means that crisis media management, preparedness and ability to respond have never been more important.
Crisis media management is a 24/7 business
Really big incidents, like those that result in death or serious injury, have of course always had the capacity to trigger a crisis outside of normal working hours.
But, as we identified above, the rise of social media has meant that fairly small issues, which may not have typically trigged a crisis, can do widespread damage if they are not managed quickly.
Often these incidents can break when organisations have closed down for the day and this can cause huge delays in managing and gripping the issue.
Earlier this year when Topman found itself in the middle of a social media storm which broke overnight, it took it 12 hours to respond. The damage had already been done.
The modern digital world means organisations need to ensure they are able to identify and respond to crises away from the 9-5, because these incidents have a frustrating habit of happening outside of work hours.
Social media, mobile devices and 24 hour news channels all mean we’ve become accustomed to having information available on demand.
This means that the time organisations caught up in crisis have to respond has shrunk considerably.
Peter Bellew, the chief executive of Malaysia Airlines, recently said that companies now have less than 15 minutes to start communicating. The so called ‘golden hour’ has been smashed by the increasing desire for immediacy.
That may seem like a very tight timeframe, but the longer an organisation remains silent the more likely it is to lose control of the narrative and ultimately the bigger impact it is likely to have on revenue.
What this shows is that it is more important than ever for organisations to spend some of their good days preparing for darker times.
Think back on some of the big recent crises and you’ll find many of them have a familiar theme – video.
United Airlines was plunged in to a crisis when video footage emerged of a bloodied passenger being dragged from one of its planes. Video footage was also heavily involved in the recent Starbucks crisis triggered by the arrest of two African American men at one of its coffee shops in Philadelphia.
Everyone with a smartphone and a decent internet connection now has the capacity to turn into a journalist and report things as they happen.
And this footage can be far more damaging. There can be little doubt that the United Airlines incident I just mentioned would not have got the coverage it did if it had not been for the fact that millions of people were able to see for themselves what had happened.
Even if the crisis is not initially triggered by video, footage could emerge at a later point which adds fuel and impetus to the incident.
So the modern approach to a crisis media management situation needs to include thinking about how video will affect the way you respond to an incident. This should include responding on the same channels where the footage is being shared and considering using video as a mechanism to get your messages out.
But it is also crucial to consider how any potentially negative incident could escalate into a crisis if videos were to emerge.
Apologies have to be meaningful
The established rule is that organisations should always apologise during a reputation crisis.
But the current thinking is that this has become something of a default option, something organisations tick off as they make their way through their crisis media management response plan.
‘We take this matter extremely seriously’, for example, is overused and lacks both originality and sincerity.
Simply apologising is no longer good enough. Brands are now expected to show that they really are sorry and that the apology is meaningful.
A corporate apology now needs to reflect sincerity, honesty and empathy.
Apologising for the sake of it will not get you very far.
Action speaks louder than words
If you have been on one of crisis media management training courses, you will know that we have always highlighted the importance of brands showing what action they have taken as a result of crisis.
It is crucial they detail what they have done both to stop the incident and to prevent something similar from happening again in the future.
This seems to have become even more important in recent times. Now an organisation in crisis mode is almost expected to make some form of sacrifice to show its commitment to change.
If you take the recent Starbucks crisis, for example, this was something it mastered in its response.
It announced plans to close more than 8,000 stores for part of a day for employees to attend ‘racial bias education’ – a move that would reportedly cost the chain around $16.7 million.
This announcement showed clear, decisive action and helped change the direction of the media coverage and social media conversations.
Two way conversation
The growth of social media has had another impact.
Now customers are no longer prepared to just hear from brands through traditional media during a crisis. They now want them to engage in conversations and answer questions (authentically) on social media channels.
This means that the monitoring of these channels needs to be effective.
And it also means that social media managers must be trusted and given the freedom to engage in these conversations.
All too often brands respond to these conversations in a robotic fashion, simply copying and pasting pre-approved lines. This approach fails to show the authenticity and transparency required during a crisis.
The brands which do this part of crisis media management well, respond to posts, regardless of whether they are critical or praising of their response, and ensure each reply sounds individual and authentic.
People want to hear from other people – it’s human nature.
In a crisis they want to see the face behind the brand and in the most serious incidents that should be the CEO displaying visible leadership.
It also means that when they hear from that spokesperson, they want to feel that the words they use are their own, and not taken from a script prepared by lawyers and PR advisers.
This involves a certain degree of bravery from organisations. They need to trust spokespeople to put messaging in their own words.
But that faith will be rewarded with more understanding and willingness to forget errors.
There is little doubt that social media has made managing the initial stages of a crisis more intense than ever before.
These channels are often a place where reason and perspective are abandoned at the login as people pile on to the outrage bandwagon.
This can be something of a minefield for organisations, and of course it can also trigger interest from traditional media if they have not already picked up on the story.
But the good news is that this is rarely sustained and the uproar often moves on to another issue fairly quickly, if the incident is managed effectively.
Of course, the really big crisis incidents, like Facebook’s data breach, will run for longer periods but in many incidents what is now classed as a ‘crisis’, may last little more than 48 hours.
*Download our FREE eBook to find out more about planning for a crisis. It includes a checklist to helping you identify the right spokesperson, messaging templates and a risk register to help you identify your organisation’s vulnerabilities.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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