Prepare to weather the storm

Crisis Communication: 5 Tips for Navigating a PR Disaster

It catches you by surprise, arrives with full force, and causes quite a frenzy: If a so-called "shitstorm" arrives, press officers and company spokespersons need to be prepared. Good crisis communication can help prevent further damage, so having a plan at hand is recommended for when winter comes.

What this post is about

  • Create an emergency plan for times of crisis
  • Defines messages and responsibilities clearly
  • Test your risk profile just like any other emergency plan
  • Make sure all employees stick to the plan
  • If necessary, get support from external professionals

Even popular brands like Gillette, True Fruits, or Deutsche Bahn (the German railway company) had to face it: a so-called shitstorm. The reason was usually old-fashioned role models, careless comments, or ambiguous slogans with questionable content. No company can be fully protected from making mistakes, but a good guideline for behavior in front of customers and users can help to extinguish the fire.

Take preventive measures by creating risk profiles

Like in most cases, you need an emergency plan for times of crisis. Those who provide preventive support are much more confident in the face of a possible catastrophe. Creating a risk profile defines the most important details in advance, such as the trigger and responsibilities. Depending on the situation, it addresses different people or departments of the company: If broken or faulty products are involved, the focus lies on Product Development. If an advertising campaign has been misunderstood, the Marketing Manager will take on a central role.

It is elementary to have well-trained contact persons who can help with initial answers and give the first instructions. In order to make sure that they all give the same statements, provide them with clear guidelines. It's the easiest way to bring structure to such hectic situations and allows your team to keep a clear head and act professionally. Instruct your team so they remember that personal opinions or comments are not helpful and, above all, counterproductive.

To keep an overview - and a clear head - use your smart helpdesk to easily categorize incoming requests. This makes your communication more structured and helps to prevent further complications. Your action plan helps to determine the right internal responsibilities - based on keywords and fully automated.

Organize a test run

Whether a good theory also proves itself in practice can only be found out by testing. The test run of the created risk profile should - like every emergency - be rehearsed under real conditions. This way, gaps or pitfalls can be identified and eliminated more quickly. Critical situations from the past or case studies from your own industry serve as practice material that can be used as a starting scenario.

During the test run, employees take on their assigned tasks, timelines should be followed, and honest feedback should be gathered from the team. You will most probably have to re-adjust and improve your risk profile after the test run to fully optimize it for a possible PR emergency. But it pays off to put in the work in advance!

Tried and tested templates should be kept on file so you can retrieve them at the touch of a button. This makes it easier for your agents to react to messages and comments and ensures legally compliant wording when replying to critical and provocative messages.

Basics of crisis communication

Upset customers usually don't consider their words carefully. Their blunt comments are often painful and hit hard. Employees shouldn't take them personally, and must always provide a professional response. Which content you communicate is specified in the risk profile, but the timing must be evaluated on an individual basis. Avoid solo communication or automated emails under any circumstances. Hiring additional team members in Customer Support helps to absorb the onslaught, while a well-written FAQ page provides users with answers in advance.

Randomly posting official apologies in the comment sections can make the situation worse. Statements made too early look untrustworthy. Instead, evaluate the situation properly and check all aspects as well as the reactions of the customers before phrasing your reply. Fundamental analysis takes time, but it is crucial, as it can save your company's image.

Stick to your defined workflow

One thing needs to be said: Sticking to your crisis plan will not soften the blow. (Sorry!) However, following your risk profile will safely guide your company through the storm. Although abusive customer opinions or exaggerated statements require a lot of patience, it is essential that you stick to your workflow.

Lead by your crisis communication team, the department heads of your company will take the lead. Together, this "special unit" will send regular updates to your customers to show that you take the problem seriously.

Get support

Of course, not every company can afford to have its own crisis team. But small and mid-sized businesses can still weather the storm professionally with the help of external support. PR agencies and press representatives can provide the necessary support and assist you in dealing with the media.

Summary

If you invest enough time in prevention, you can avert or channel the catastrophe in the best case. If it hits you nonetheless, you will need a strong backbone to confront unfiltered opinions - whether they are justified or not. When the shitstorm rolls in, there is just one rule: Maintain focus and take action!

  1. Take preventive measures by creating risk profiles
  2. Organize a test run
  3. Basics of crisis communication
  4. Stick to your defined workflow
  5. Get support
  6. Summary
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