6 crisis communication resolutions everyone should make this year

It’s a new year and many organizations have a positive outlook. However, plenty can still go wrong, and savvy pros should take precautions.

crisis comms resolutions

For many, some New Year’s resolutions will already be in tatters.

Some huge brands—including Facebook, Marriott Hotels, Pret A Manger and Starbucks—faced crises in 2018.

Other companies (yours, maybe?) will find themselves in the spotlight’s glare when things go wrong.

With that in mind, here are six crisis management resolutions for 2019:

1. Identify your vulnerabilities.

As a crisis can come in many different forms, it is unlikely a brand manager would be able to predict the exact scenario he or she will face.

The good news is that you can narrow down the possibilities.

A risk register, or list of potential threats, is a great way for an organization to identify its vulnerabilities and risks which could expose it to public attention, media scrutiny and potentially damage—or even destroy—its reputation.

2. Act swiftly.

The importance of acting quickly during a crisis may not be new information, but organizations continue to ignore this golden rule of crisis media management.

Just before Christmas, for example, Britannia Hotels found itself in the media spotlight after cancelling a booking for homeless people at one of its hotels in Hull. Despite the media scrutiny and social media backlash, it didn’t respond for more than 24 hours. By that time, it had completely lost control of the story.

Similarly, the bosses of Facebook remained tight-lipped for five days earlier last year when its data crisis first broke. Not only was this a disastrous strategy, but the silence became something of a sideshow to the rapidly evolving story.

How quickly do you need to respond? Some believe it is as little as 15 minutes, which sounds intense. However, it is a lot more achievable with prepared holding statements.

3. Prepare your holding statements.

One of the keys to being able to meet this ever-tightening deadline for responding to a crisis is to already have holding statements prepared which can be quickly adapted to cover any incident.

An effective holding statement will buy an organization some crucial time until it is able to get a better understanding of what has happened and issue something more detailed. It will also help prevent the spread of rumor and speculation.

The crucial thing to remember is that when the worst happens, social media and journalists will not expect you to have all the information at your fingertips. They do want to see that you are aware of the incident, that you acknowledge something has gone wrong and that you are trying to resolve the situation.

Since holding statements don’t need to go into any great detail, they can easily be prepared in advance.

4. Be sincere.

Many organizations seem to have difficulty apologizing.

Some simply don’t say “sorry” at all. When Mastercard’s “meals for goals” campaign turned into a reputational own goal last summer, it backed down and changed its offer. However, it didn’t apologize—it simply said that it was “adjusting” the campaign.

For other brands, the apology seems to be something which they tick off all too flippantly as they make their way through their crisis response plan.

“We take this matter extremely seriously,” for example, is overused and lacks both originality and sincerity.   “We’re sorry for any offence” suggests that the organization doesn’t really feel it has done anything wrong.

That was certainly how it came across when Puma responded to accusations of glamorizing drug culture in one of its campaigns last April. It said it regretted “any misunderstandings” and added: “We apologize for any upset or offence caused in the usage of this language.”

These half-hearted and guarded types of apologies are not good enough. Organizations are now expected to show that they really are sorry and that the apology is meaningful.

A corporate apology needs to reflect sincerity, honesty and empathy if it is going to resonate.

5. Don’t downplay what has happened.

A fairly regular theme in recent crisis incidents has been organization’s succumbing to the temptation to play down the scale of what has happened.

Take TSB, for example. When a failed IT upgrade plunged it into crisis, then-CEO Paul Pester was quick to take to the airwaves to say that the problem had been fixed. Just two days later he admitted that only half of its customers with an online account were experiencing normal service.

A couple of years ago, when Samsung was dealing with reports that its Galaxy Note 7 phones were catching fire, it described a product recall as an “exchange program.”

When reports emerged about supposedly safe replacement devices also combusting, the company was “temporarily adjusting the Galaxy Note 7 production schedule.” Then 24 hours later, the company stopped production of the model.

A clear aim in any crisis situation is to minimize the organization’s reputational damage, but that can’t be achieved by trying to minimize the scale of the crisis itself. As more and more customers take to social media to voice their concerns and journalists dig further, the full magnitude of the issue will become clear.

6. Put your plans to the test.

Crisis testing exercises which put organizations through realistic and challenging scenarios are not only crucial, they are also the only real way of ensuring plans are robust.

PR pros are often involved in crisis scenario testing for clients. Organizations learn whether the crisis plans they have on paper will work in the real world and where they need improving.

It can also help them identify gaps in the crisis teams and any crisis communication training needs.

What are your crisis communications resolutions for 2019?

Adam Fisher is the content editor for Media First, a media and communications training firm. A version of this article originally appeared on the Media First blog.

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