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Keeping cool in a crisis

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 By Katie Shuff, Comms Consultant, TopLine Comms

A company’s public image is just as important for building brand loyalty as the provision of consistently excellent products and services. Regular and engaging communication is paramount to maintaining this public image, but when a global pandemic and international social injustices protests like Black Lives Matter enter the fray, getting your brand’s perception right becomes an entirely different ballgame. Here’s what to look out for when navigating unknown territory and communicating on sensitive topics.

The importance of empathy

Not long ago, social media activism was somewhat optional for brands, but with consumers becoming increasingly vocal about social injustices, brands are being pressured to take a stand too. These days, when a crisis kicks off, a vague holding statement simply won’t cut it. Supporting a social justice cause with conviction can go a long way to retain customer trust and loyalty. Consumers are shrewd to vague statements and tokenism so responses to these issues should be open, transparent and, most importantly, empathetic.

It’s not uncommon for disgruntled employees to share internal memos or even Slack messages on social media or other platforms, so the tone of both internal and external comms must remain authentic and human. Remember, being called out is only a tweet away, and the fallout from coming across as insincere can damage your image. Take an honest, hard look at your company when formulating any form of communication, and steer clear of corporate jargon.

Use precise language that doesn’t try to hide any issues and prepare yourself to apologise if needs be. Offering an apology isn’t necessarily viewed as admitting liability, but rather the right step to take to help diffuse a complex situation.

Set up channels for effective communication flow

Social media is forcing companies to act quickly and communicate often. Having a clear-cut chain of command and an unobstructed approval process will not only save time but also avoid miscommunication as a crisis presents itself.

A crisis communication plan should include key contacts, templates and detailed procedures on how and when to share information and with whom. When compiling your list of stakeholders and spokespeople, make sure you consider the following:

  • Know who your stakeholders are: Identify and assign around three stakeholders involved in the communication approval process. They could include the CEO, senior executives, or managers of key departments, and they need to be in a position to sign off activity within a two-hour window.
  • Identify your spokespeople: Their details need to be kept on file and updated regularly in case of personnel changes. Don’t forget to include a list of stand-in spokespersons in case anyone is unavailable or on leave.
  • Determine whether you need to brief any other experts that might be closer to the issue at stake.
  • Create a social media action plan and make sure employees are aware of your organisation’s position.
  • Select a dedicated member of the team to communicate internally where necessary – whether in person, in writing or via video.

Craft a crisis management ‘bible’

Removing the need to frantically arrange logistical aspects on the day means you can focus all your energy on the unfolding crisis. When creating your crisis management ‘bible’, apply the following actions:

  • Identify all potential calamities, such as a product malfunction or an employee leaking confidential information. Make sure to cover every detail.
  • Identify and assign roles to everyone – from the person setting up the ‘war room’ to the person doing social media monitoring and the one handling all liaisons.
  • Include the contact details of all relevant spokespersons.
  • Use social media monitoring to stay informed.
  • Add in general company messaging. These provide a good starting point and can be tweaked as the situation demands. It also ensures that everyone speaks with one voice.
  • Ensure your crisis comms team knows where it is saved and how to access it. Update it regularly.

Pay more than lip service

Effective and transparent communication alone isn’t enough. Speaking out without the intention to bring about change is just noise. There are several recent examples where employees have delivered justified criticism against companies that have made insincere comments. Take swift, decisive action to address any issues where allegations made are found to be true. Then build it into your longer-term PR strategy.

Successful crisis resolution relies on being skilful, well prepared, and having a clear plan in place. After you’ve successfully weathered a crisis, take time to reflect on it afterwards and identify what can be improved. By taking the right steps today, you stand an excellent chance of coming out of 2020 with your reputation intact or even in better shape than before.

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