Oct 24, 2018 / by Sarah Parker

crisis strategy power play

You're prepping your crisis strategy for 2019 and you're ready for the next step; you've prepped your play and you're ready to turn a crisis communication situation into a power play. 

What comes next?

It's time to run the play, then assess how things went. We'll also run through a real-world example. 

Run the play.  

Be on the alert. The first rule of crisis comms is to know when there’s a crisis. In a world of turbulent news, early detection counts, but it's also important to look deeper before reacting. What’s being said and by whom? Gauge impact in terms of visibility, readership, and social reach. Is the negative coverage a mere annoyance or a growing catastrophe that requires an immediate response?

Let the scale of the situation shape your response and take the time to understand the scope of it before you respond. Remember, your best response might be NO response.

Be checking in. This is where influencing the influencers kicks into high gear. Check how the story is playing with your content creation community — people who’ve been quoted about, written an article about, or talked meaningfully with you about your brand. Are they echoing your existing brand narrative or amplifying the new, crisis-related one?

Gauge the reaction of friends, critics, and familiars. These content creators have worthwhile context on your brand, and their reactions are informed reactions. Their concerns- or lack of concern- can help guide your response. 

Be rock steady. When crisis knocks, don’t stop your momentum when it's not necessary; keep operating and tracking your PR programs in flight when appropriate. Do review ongoing efforts to check tone or tenor in light of the crisis. But don’t let the crisis own all your coverage. Keep operating your strategy unless absolutely necessary.

Be fully informed. Early detection is great, but immediate response is not. Before you proceed, make a list of what you know and don’t know — then fill in those blanks. It’s OK to issue a placeholder statement. Let people know your brand is aware of what’s transpired, and will have more to say soon.

Tempted to jump in the instant crisis breaks? Don’t do it. A fast response won’t slow the spread of bad news, but an ill-informed response could certainly make things worse.

Be the expert. PR should have a seat at the table with the C-suite at all times. In a crisis, PR must provide the data and insights CEOs and other top executives need to navigate the crisis successfully. With data in hand, you are the expert who can define what’s happening and make on-target recommendations as to how the brand should respond.

Practice clarity in reporting before crisis hits. PR can best shape crisis outcomes by providing the clearest possible picture of measurable media and public reaction.

Be empathetic. A PR crisis often means someone has been physically or emotionally hurt, disappointed, or worried. The best responses show legitimate empathy for the people involved. This is not the same as accepting responsibility, and certainly not in a legal sense. 

Empathy will be appreciated. Perhaps your company did nothing wrong — but if people were harmed in any way, it is smart to acknowledge this and show compassion.
Be honest. Crisis deepens when “the coverup is worse than the crime.” In 2018, nothing is  secret. That doesn’t mean you have to share every detail about every situation with the world. It’s best to stick to the most relevant facts — but never lie. 

Always assume relevant facts will come to light. Avoid big hits to your brand’s reputation by adding dishonesty to whatever else has already gone wrong.

Be vocal. Don’t be shy in times of need. Ask top influencers — people who support your brand’s mission and vision — for active help. If everyone else is buzzing about the crisis, ask brand advocates to remind networks why they became fans in the first place. These people may be willing to offer quotes you can use in your own materials or give to journalists. 

During hard times, getting top influencers to create and share positive content can help readers see there’s more to your brand than crisis headlines suggest.

Be the best source. Managing crisis is no fun, but your best bet is to have the conversation on your home turf. On your website, you control the narrative. Control the tone by being the most reliable source on the crisis itself. Change the topic completely by offering OTHER compelling information. Visitors may hit the site for info on the recall or shake-up. Once there, though, they might notice something else that catches their eye. 

Search engines like fresh content. Outrank bad news by promoting positive content you control. Refresh your site and optimize for SEO terms you care about.

Assess the play.

No matter how well you manage today’s crisis, let the event be your teacher. Each situation is unique, but once the dust settles, PR practitioners can analyze both subjective and objective information to better prepare for the future. 

On the subjective side, ask questions about how it all went down:

  • Can something like this be prevented?
  • Are new procedures needed to shore up a weakness?
  • Do relations with customers, employees, community, or other stakeholders need improvement?
  • How could we have responded better?
  • Did everyone involved in our response understand and fulfill their responsibilities?

On the objective side, PR can measure how the crisis is impacted, or continues to impact, the brand over time. Some bad situations hit hard and fizzle fast. Others may linger and do more lasting damage.

You can help executives answer immediate and ongoing questions, including:

Are people still talking about the crisis? As you track media mentions, assign a topic or theme so you can compare those about the crisis and your crisis response with your non-crisis coverage. Is non-crisis coverage rising? If so, it’s a good sign folks are moving on.

How do they feel about the crisis? About us? Is this focused on the brand overall, or on a single person associated with the brand, like an influencer or C-level executive? What’s the prevailing sentiment in each mention category? How is sentiment trending over time? If crisis coverage is going down, great. If crisis coverage is still high, what aspect is still under discussion, and what is the tone of that coverage? If your brand is getting positive notice for the way you handled things, that’s a win.

Are they noticing other things about us? If so, what? Social sharing is a good proxy for audience engagement. When you get positive, non-crisis coverage, check the number of shares. This tells you whether positive stories are resonating with your most important audiences despite the crisis, and also helps you assess what OTHER information you have to offer is most compelling in the wake of the crisis.

Trends across key metrics can help you determine whether a sustained program is needed to repair crisis damage, or if a few quick actions will do. A PR intelligence platform like TrendKite can also help you see how effective PR activity is in resetting brand reputation, driving new traffic to your website, or even converting as new customers.

Obviously, the best crisis scenario is to avoid a crisis in the first place— but that’s usually out of your hands. What you can do is get the right strategy and tools in place so that when things go awry, you can jump into the action like a true superhero.

Real world crisis communications: Tide Pod Challenge

Tide Pods are like a dishwashing pod, but for your laundry. Less of a mess than measuring out liquid detergent, right? This revolutionary concept in laundry has encountered a few problems on entering the marketplace, however. The brightly colored pods tended to attract little kids, and we all know little kids put stuff they like into their mouths. 

Tide made changes in both packaging and product design, with fixes from prominent poison warnings to childproof pouches, to making the pod’s coating thicker and less likely to dissolve on ingesting. But when teens began eating — or pretending to eat — Tide Pods on YouTube as a prank, Tide responded differently. 

Teen Tide Pod eaters were mis-using the product on purpose and the brand was doing nothing to inspire or encourage this crazy behavior. Still, Tide avoided acrimony and responded to the “crisis” in a way that shut down criticism, and won thoughtful coverage on NPR, Time Magazine, and more. 

The brand put out new content across multiple channels about the safe use of Tide Pods for laundry. Meanwhile, PR teams hit journalists with a thoughtful discussion of the product’s history, and the moves the brand had made to make the pods safer. 

Using honesty, they gave content creators thoughts on pod history, and the reasons behind each design choice, from the product’s formulation to its size and color.  

Showing empathy, the brand began responding to Tide Pod eaters (regardless of if eaters may have been joking) with sincere and fervent advice to “call poison control, and let us know when you feel better.” 

Crisis Strategy Empathy Tide Pods

Engaging key audiences with humor, the brand released a public service announcement video featuring New England Patriots star Rob Gronkowski, or “Gronk,” telling teens in no uncertain terms to avoid this particular viral trend.

Crisis Strategy Example Tide Pods

In the end, Tide’s crisis comms play changed the conversation. Tide’s honesty helped keep media musings on product design choices neutral-to-positive. Without putting down teens or making light of the situation, Tide’s empathy and engagement helped everyone focus on the sometimes strange combination of teen behavior and social media. 

How TrendKite can help in a crisis: The TrendKite crisis comms dashboard

Preparing your crisis management strategy? TrendKite can help. Once you’ve considered the possible forms crisis could take for your business, set up a dashboard to be ready to manage and respond should a crisis situation materialize.

First, set up a crisis search by combining your brand name with crisis terms you’ve brainstormed. With a few clicks, you can set up a customized dashboard to monitor your crisis search and drill into relevant coverage if detected.

Be sure to identify your crisis bucket — a group of 20 - 50 journalists, contributors, social and thought leaders — you’ll use to gauge reaction in the event of crisis. You can tag the group and monitor their latest content all in your crisis dashboard.

Finally, set up alerts to notify you in real-time if there are spikes in coverage across all mediums, including social. 

As PR pros like to say, always be prepared. 

(You can get even more prepared with our crisis strategy resource page—  it has everything you need before you need it.)

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About Sarah Parker

Sarah A. Parker is the Content Marketing Manager for Cision, planning, producing and curating content across channels. She previously managed content and social media for several different brands, in addition to working as a freelance writer. Find her on Twitter @SparkerWorks where she is happy to talk all things social media strategy, the dynamic world of PR, and mastiffs.