COVID-19 has taught us many lessons as a society. Lessons about family, friends, and facing the unknown. And, of course, lessons about communication in 2020 and beyond.
As communicators, we’ve also learned from how the pandemic has been handled by countries and companies around the world. We have seen examples of messages that have helped the pandemic spread unchecked, as well as instances of sincere pleas to take the necessary steps to protect public health. Millions of people are still eagerly listening for a consistent and trusted refrain.
Types of Crises
Most of the crises we encounter in the business world will not be of such global magnitude. But, if big enough, and bad enough, they can destroy a company’s reputation and its people. There are several types of crises that communications teams can prepare for, including:
- Data breaches and computer system attacks
- C-level disruption due to illness or unethical behavior
- Faulty products resulting in injury or death
- Operational fraud and financial misdeeds
- Scandal by association with an event, a cause or a person
- Insensitive and tone-deaf advertising campaigns
- Business disruption caused by a natural disaster
No doubt that the list above got you thinking of all the corporate crises we have seen in modern life. PR Daily shared some of its top PR crises of 2019. They remind us of the Boeing 737 Max crisis that killed hundreds, the Hollywood celebrity college admissions scheme, Purdue Pharma’s implication in the opioid epidemic and more.
Crisis Communications Strategies
Web hosting and cloud computing company Ionos offers start-up advice for customers embarking on new business ventures. Guidance includes creating a crisis communications plan, well ahead of any crisis situation. The steps outlined by Ionos include:
- Determining what kinds of crises that your company is most likely to face
- Preparing a contact list of all people who need to be informed throughout a crisis situation
- Deciding who is responsible for distributing information across a defined hierarchy
- Choosing the person who will be “the face of the crisis” for media and public relations
- Writing a statement that addresses the FAQs and ensures consistent messaging
- Setting up a platform for customer complaints on a secure channel via email or portal
- Training the crisis communications team with mock scenarios
It makes good business sense to be prepared for if and when your company experiences a crisis. With the right structure in place, it will be easier to adjust to rapidly changing situations.
The Cost of Crisis Communications
Global communications firm Fleishman Hilliard estimates the cost of crisis communications planning at $50,000 to $600,000. Why such a wide range? Cost variations depend on the type of industry, size of the company and number of geographic locations. Multinational firms will need to consider cultural sensitivities and language needs. The bigger the company, the bigger the effort.
On the other side of the coin is the cost of being unprepared. Hot Paper Lantern, an integrated communications company, created a Crisis Response Index that measures the impact on stock prices based on speed and quality of response. Findings include:
Responding to a crisis within hours = 4% stock decline
Responding to a crisis within days = 10% stock decline
Responding to a crisis within weeks = 14% stock decline
Crisis communicators should note that responding quickly with an inefficient message also leads to greater rates of decline. However, companies that respond quickly with a quality message – and honest estimation that things might get worse before they get better – will rebound faster. Again, the value of preplanning comes into play.
Social Media Considerations
Social media lends itself to both ends of crisis communications. It can help to solve a situation with thoughtful and carefully curated content. Or, as we’ve seen repeatedly, social media can also make a bad situation worse.
Errant posts written in haste to get ahead of the problem tend to fail. That’s why it’s critical to have a social media strategy as part of your overall crisis communications plan. It’s not only the most immediate way to get a message out to followers, it also an essential tactic to protect your reputation.
In writing for Forbes, Evan Nierman, CEO of PR and crisis communications firm Red Banyan, offers these “Five Steps to Effectively Use Social Media for Crisis Management:”
- Assign roles in determining who is going to manage the social media effort. This is an important piece of pre-planning for crises – deciding who is going to monitor your social channels, answer questions and respond to negative posts.
- Give your crisis an intuitive and easy-to-remember hashtag. It will help clients, employees and the media find the latest updates without searching and scrolling.
- Control the conversation by actively engaging with media, influencers and others who can help share the messages you want to communicate. Be consistent with what is being said and make sure you have up-to-date content on the company website to refer back to.
- While you need to have a formal statement on your company website, you should not use corporate-speak in your social posts. Remain authentic and conversational, with the kind of straightforward explanations and answers that build trust.
- Be diligent in monitoring your social media channels throughout the duration of the crisis. Don’t miss an opportunity to advance the conversation in your favor. Only by watching what’s being said in real time can you truly control the narrative.
Getting Ahead of What’s Next
The most important thing communicators can do is plan and then plan some more. Revisit your crisis communications strategy from time to time. Run scenarios through your strategy to see if they hold up. Imagine the worst, the most unlikely, and the freak accident that will never happen. Because if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the one thing you never worried about will be the one to wreak havoc.
Crisis communications is an exciting and challenging option for professionals who want to specialize their career path. Learn more about how you can become a leading voice during difficult times with a Master of Communication Management Online from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.