Crisis Communications



We have all watched it happen: brands people love can easily be felled by social media PR gaffes, or offline gaffes for which the wronged party took its plight online. By the time these issues get shared virally, the brand cannot get out from under the torrent of bad mentions.


Not everything is preventable or surmountable (BP tried its best, but it’s still not well regarded). Most of these situations, however, can be prevented or caught early by careful planning.


Having a system for monitoring, triaging, and escalating communications is crucial. But so is having an established battle plan along with a properly trained communications staff to execute your battle plan, and get you closer to a resolution with the parties involved to minimize brand damage.


Before you Begin: Be Honest with Yourself


If you have a PR firm engaged, you will have already worked with them to build a document on your company and products’ pain points. If you do not have a firm engaged, create this document immediately. What you need are three columns:


1)    The potential problem

2)    What possible complaints could be generated from this problem

3)    Talking points for responding to the complaint and resolving it.


The information in these columns needs to be exhaustive. Enlist the help of any feedback e-mails, tweets or Facebook posts you have received. Make this a living document, and keep track of when new issues are added (and their frequency.)


Knowing your company and products’ weaknesses can go a long way toward crisis-proofing your brand. Ask customer care agents to be honest with you about pain points, and formulate a game plan to change these things. Pain points can sink your brand. If it’s within reason to change, change it before you’re forced to by a digital mob.


Once you have created this document, you can use it as a jumping off point for your crisis plan.


Tone and Manner: Put it in Writing, Train Your Staff


Many stories of brand crises often involved untrained or junior-level staff reacting in an inappropriate manner. It’s important to reiterate a golden rule of social media: If you wouldn’t trust an intern to approve poster art or ad copy, don’t trust him or her to operate as important a channel as your social media.


Adding to your pain point’s document should be guidelines for the tone and manner of all communications with an unhappy customer, or group. This will differ from brand to brand (depending on how formal or plain spoken your brand’s normal tone of voice is).



What is common to the language of every brand is that you must:


  • Write responses that allow the complainant to feel heard. Most of the time, customers who complain legitimately want to raise an issue, and a stock response could incite them to escalate an issue when all they want to know is that you are investigating the issue.


  • Adhere to your brand standards, but your responses need to be customized to the individual. The best way to help calm a situation down is to talk directly to the person as though he or she were on the phone.


  • Set the tone for what the next steps are for the person’s complaint. If you’re escalating an issue to a VP, or an individual who is a decision maker, indicate that (and if you aren’t, you’d better have an air-tight explanation for why not, or else you could set off a customer for ignoring his or her complaint.)


  • Not give the impression you don’t care, you forgot details, or are otherwise disengaged from the situation at hand. This is another fail point in many brand crises: complainants feel like they were “handled” or “dealt with” instead of taken seriously. Remember: tweets are archived, and anything on the web can have screen shots taken of it. Keep written records of where an issue is, and include transcripts if necessary.


  • Know when to have a decision maker and a customer talk one-to-one. This requires buy-in, but if you let the decision maker know that your online brand equity could be compromised, he or she should agree to participate. Get contact information through direct messaging and arrange for the complainant and the decision maker to talk.


Write the guidelines and decision-making trees for these situations into your brand crisis guidebook. Include previous real-world examples.


Once you have these key pieces of collateral assembled, gather anyone who has a customer-facing role at your company and teach them the rules. Make sure they have a deep understanding of pain points.


I once gave a talk at a conference, and the company I was working for was having a problem with some of their hardware. After my session, I had a disgruntled customer ask me, point-blank, in front of about 20 attendees, what I was going to do about her item, which broke soon after she bought it.


If I had not written the guidelines of how to handle this issue myself, I may have been flustered, making the situation worse. Instead, I asked the woman for her mailing address to send a replacement (AND an SASE so we could recover the faulty unit from her: important to our tech team) and gave her my card on which I wrote down my mobile phone number. I assured her we would solve her issue early the next week and we did. I later found out she was a pretty influential blogger, and she wrote a positive article about the experience.


Because your brand can’t control where and when your complaints will come, you need to make sure everyone’s on the same page about what to say, how to escalate, and how to defuse a potentially detrimental situation.


Monitoring Mentions: Your First Line of Defence


Many of the top social media monitoring tools can run reports for you about who has said what about your brand. Most of the time, for small to medium-sized businesses, you can get by with this type of solution.


As you grow, or as you introduce new or updated products, you will need to be doing real-time monitoring to effectively spot problems and to intervene early. Heartbeat, powered by Sysomsos, has this feature set and allows you to respond from within the tool in real-time so you can begin proactively containing and resolving an issue.


Does your company have an “info@” e-mail address? Does a live human actually monitor it daily? If the answer is no, that inbox could be a powder keg of resentment. Any communication tool without a human being on the other end is dangerous to your brand. Invest in someone to monitor these communication points, and know which messages to escalate.


Know When to Fold ‘Em: Trolls


Some people will wilfully reach out to your brand for jokes, or under false pretenses. It’s important to get the facts before you jump in and embarrass your brand (though fans might chuckle, they won’t hold it against you if you mistakenly try to intervene with an internet troll as it wastes everyone’s time.)


If you suspect you’re being trolled, Google is your friend. Google any weird phrases that seem strange to you. Google the account handles of the complainant or look at his or her stream to see if that person, as a matter of course, complains to corporate accounts all the time, or complains about strange issues.


If you suspect the individual is just joking, you can direct him or her to an email address to explain more about their “plight.” (This makes your brand look professional, while enabling you to let the matter drop if the person is a troll, or legitimately deal with a situation if the person is not.)


There are several comedians’ accounts who take on companies regularly as a matter of course. A quick check of their bios and a look at their mentions of other brands will weed these people out.


If the complaint by a troll is abusive, baseless and cruel, or attacks other fans, ban those accounts, but not before providing them with a special e-mail address to contact. If that person is in a blind rage, he or she may have lashed out, but still have a legitimate complaint.


Proceed with caution with any responses you actually get to that e-mail address. Do your homework and find out as much about that person’s web footprint before replying.



Sometimes You Will Have to Bite the Bullet


The easiest way to fix most situations is to admit your brand was wrong and swiftly make amends. Social media is no different than real-life relationships in that regard. Your lawyers might bristle at the thought of you publicly declaring your culpability, but every time a brand has admitted a problem and made amends early, it has been able to minimise brand damage.


This doesn’t mean you have to throw your brand to the mercy of your customers, but you do have to approach your response from the perspective of “We’re sorry we offended you” rather than “We’re sorry if offence was caused.” (The latter implies you’re contrite about being caught.)


Keep your apologies public and your reparations private. Make sure you handle customer complaints with respect, in a speedy fashion, and until you get consensus on the agreed fix. You will win with complainants if you stay calm, stay human, and act swiftly.


There might also be cases where it’s better to cut your losses. If you stopped making a product line, and it’s never coming back, you might want to suggest someone else’s product, even if that company competes with you on another product. The sheer honesty and customer-forward approach of this move might snatch a victory for your brand from the jaws of defeat.


It was Lincoln who quipped “You can please all of the people some of the time, or some of the people all of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” This has never been more true than in the social media age. Your brand needs to adapt to this new reality and be prepared with a guidebook, triage points, open decision makers and well-trained front line staff.


If your brand is ever in doubt over how to handle a crisis, think about how you would handle it if that person walked into your office, and conduct your communications appropriately: swift, fair action wins the day for brands online.

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