Image Credits:

Crisis communication has become a new catch phrase for brands. As is the case with most new developments in the communications industry, this one is linked closely with the digital world. A rumour about your company is suddenly trending on Twitter, or a customer complaint goes viral. That’s not to say that all corporate crises start in the digital world, but almost all of them have digital repercussions.

Volkswagen, whose emission scandal has become a case-study in crisis communication, generated 2-million tweets in the first 10-days of the incident unfurling. That is a staggering 200,000 tweets a day. MH 370, corporate as much as a humanitarian crisis, set a new record for the velocity of crisis tweets, clocking in an average of 30,000 tweets per minute over the first 4 days.


Naturally, it is in the interest of a brand to address a crisis earlier rather than later, to prevent it from escalating beyond its control and damaging its reputation. While large companies now hire specialist agencies to advise them on crisis communications, there are a few basic steps that any brand should take to ensure that it is adequately prepared to address a digital crisis.

1. Create A Crisis Management Team

Your crisis management team should include internal representatives from communications, HR, and your external PR or communications agency, if you have one. Rather than scrambling to set up a team when you face a crisis, setting up one in advance will ensure that there is a dedicated group of people that you can alert during a crisis.

The earlier your team is aware of the situation, the more prepared they will be to collectively decide the action that is required. Having a communication protocol in place is helpful. At my previous agency we used WhatsApp groups, although I am slightly wary about using this platform for professional purposes (read here). A Google group, or an email thread may work as an alternative. Of course, if a situation arises where you absolutely can’t wait till the next morning, you will most likely resort to calling each other anyway.

2. Find Out What Happened

Was it a rumor, or was it a genuine complaint that has gone viral? Is it a concerted effort by an interest group to malign your brand? Either way, it is important for you to do all your diligence before you formulate a response or determine your strategy.

Consumer-facing brands often deal with rumour mongering, especially QSR (Quick Service Restaurant) chains who are charged with some absurd accusations. In 2015, a KFC customer tweeted a picture of fried chicken that eerily resembled the shape of a rodent, and alleged that the restaurant had served him a rat. His Facebook post went viral with over 9,000 shares, and naturally reaching the mainstream media. A few weeks later, a laboratory test confirmed that it was a piece of chicken after all. (albeit with a peculiar shape!)

3. Pause Regular Posts

As soon as you are aware of a crisis, pause your regular posts or what is referred to as BAU (Business as Usual). This is bound to invite negative responses and appear insensitive on behalf of the brand.

While this may seem obvious, Volkswagen actually continued its regular posts for four days after the emission scandal broke out. As you can imagine, that did not go down well with its customers.


4. Acknowledge The Situation

Whether you choose to inform the public of the entire story – and in some cases you may not have complete information yourself – it is usually good practice to acknowledge the situation, especially if it is being widely disseminated through the digital world.

Uber, a company that is infamous for PR blunders, seems to have mastered the art of communicating without saying too much. In response to its most recent crisis yet, where a driver in Kalamazoo, Michigan allegedly shot 6 passengers, Uber posted the following message on its website:

Source: Uber

The message not only acknowledges the incident, but also provides assurance that action is being taken on the company’s behalf without sounding overly promising. The tone is somber, and the content is pithy, which are also good practices to follow when crafting crisis communication.

Customers value honesty and authenticity. If you genuinely don’t have all the information, it is better to communicate that rather than remaining silent. If anything, it will reduce the likelihood of more rumours spreading.

5. Don’t Be Afraid To Apologise

A public apology is often the best way to diffuse a crisis. Consumers don’t expect brands to be perfect, but appreciate those who are honest and transparent. To the extent possible, it is important to be honest and upfront about any issues the company may be facing. Covering up negative comments will only exacerbate the problem further, but tackling it with a thoughtful reply will build credibility in the long run.

Tesco, which suffered a massive scandal in 2013 that uncovered horsemeat in its products, is perhaps a pioneer in effective apologies. Once the allegations were proven true, the company placed full-page advertisements in every national newspaper, apologising to its customers. No quirky images or illustrations, but a simple and thoughtful message acknowledging its mistake. Its Director, Tim Smith, even filmed a video apology with the BBC that was shared with major broadcast networks.

One caveat to sending out any apology is that your legal team, or a lawyer, must vet it before you actually publicise it. Lawyers are often skeptical about apologising because of liability issues, but once you can convince them that it’s the only way to save the situation, it’s worth making sure that they’ve approved the content before publicising it.

6. Take It Offline

Digital crisis management often requires some serious damage control. While some crises, like that of Tesco’s, affect too many people for personalised responses, others may directly affect a certain group, like in the case of Volkswagen those who possessed cars with the defeat device. Once you know the nature of your crisis, it helps to try and take conversations offline, especially if you fall in the Volkswagen category. Although it took 9 days for VW to get its act together, it eventually created a portal that allowed customers to check whether their vehicle was affected or not.

Most brands that deal with large volumes of customer complaints have systematised the process of taking conversations offline. If you’ve tweeted to a telecommunications or a credit card company, you’ll often find that they will follow you back and request you to DM (Direct Message) you their details. While this is common practice for everyday complaints, it can be mirrored in a crisis situation too, where you can have a standard response directing people to your complaint portal, or asking them to DM/email you with more details. Yes, it is highly time-consuming and painstaking but it’s a minor price to pay for saving your reputation.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn


About The Author

Saanya is a blogger on contemporary culture, politics, travel and lifestyle. She has previously been published in Times of India, DNA, Youth Ki Awaaz & more. Her blog seeks to provide a unique perspective on topical issues.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>