5 ways to fortify your crisis response for 2021

Prepping for 2021? Here’s how to ramp up crisis plans with P2P, purpose and empathy.


The pandemic has broken down silos between external and internal communications—with crisis communications now part of the job no matter where you sit on the org chart.

So how can you best prepare for what’s ahead when everything seems in flux—including your role?

“We can move forward by looking back,” says Lesley Sillaman, executive vice president with Havas PR and former deputy press secretary of the Democratic National Committee. “Hindsight lets us pinpoint trends to help strengthen our future communications, regardless what department we’re in.”

Here are five trends she’s been tracking and how to incorporate them into your work in 2021:

1. Tap into the P2P revolution. 

“We’re seeing a shift from traditional B2B or B2C to P2P (person to person) communication,” Sillaman says, “and it has accelerated since our lives changed in March.”

Put simply, pandemic-era consumers expect more from technology now as a result of the crisis.

“This has had a profound impact on companies when it comes to delivering services, experiences and products to their audiences,” she says. “Audiences expect to hear directly from brands via the communication channels they’re using—with a heavy emphasis on direct and social.”

[Discover more crisis communications insights in Ragan’s Tues., Dec. 8: “Crisis Communications Conference with speakers from Target, USAA, Walgreens, McDonald’s Comcast and more.]

2. Rally behind purpose.

“Audiences know more about the products and services they purchase because they have more information at their fingertips,” says Sillaman. “They also have high expectations of brands on the channels they consume—and are prioritizing purpose and transparency from those companies and their CEOs.”

That’s a rallying cry for CSR, DE&I and other communicators working on purpose-driven efforts. It also directly impacts crisis communications.

“B2B companies have traditionally focused more on direct customers rather than end users—even in their crisis communication planning,” Sillaman explains. “But there are now multiple audiences that will expect direct, transparent communication from those companies when things go wrong.”

3. Hug your haters.

Sillaman isn’t done beating the interpersonal communication drum.

“We’re seeing P2P playing out in real time with the election fallout,” she says. “We’ve each been touched by someone in our network sharing their feelings about it. Everyone wants to talk.”

But talking should also mean listening.

“Listening comes first in any crisis situation,” Sillaman says. “In many instances, people aren’t just looking for a quick fix. They simply want to know they’ve been heard. Brands need to be more cognizant of that as they navigate crisis situations.”

She calls it “hugging your haters” and says that airlines, retail, clothing, makeup and furniture companies have become adept at listening to the real context behind customer complaints.

“Some people just need to share their experiences and opinions,” she says. “Delta and KLM pioneered in this. They were ahead of the curve in social listening and it’s now also a hallmark of companies like Sephora.”

4. Take your war room virtual.

Scenario planning remains the best way to prepare for a crisis, since understanding likelihoods and potential consequences is the first step to preparing a response.

“But we now have the added layer of working in a nearly all-virtual world,” says Sillaman. “That includes using tools like Teams, SharePoint, One Drive and even Zoom to engage in your crisis planning and response. But it also means setting up clear processes, roles and accountability for communicating with your team online from the outset.”

She recommends using a responsibility assignment matrix (RAM) to guide the process. Her team, for example, uses these two staples:

RASCI Framework

  • Responsible – Who is responsible for doing the work on the project.
  • Accountable – Who is accountable what gets done (i.e., project manager).
  • Support – Who provides support during implementation of the project.
  • Consulted – Who can provide advice or consultation for project (often a SME).
  • Informed – Who should be informed about project progress or decisions.

DARCI Framework

  • Decision maker – Who has approval or veto power for decisions on the project.
  • Accountable – Who is accountable what gets done (i.e., project manager).
  • Responsible – Who is responsible for doing the work on the project.
  • Consulted – Who can provide advice or consultation for project (often a SME).
  • Informed – Who should be informed about project progress or decisions.

5. Embrace empathy.

A successful crisis response requires matching what you say with what you do. When they align, you can begin to earn trust and loyalty—even in the middle of a crisis.

“Stay agile, authentic and empathetic—and you’re on your way,” says Sillaman. “But as with any relationship, you have to work at it every day. You have to continue to earn that trust.”

She says Visa’s CEO Alfred Kelly is a good example. “He’s been a leader in providing empathy from the beginning of pandemic. Unilever’s CEO Alan Jope has also shown empathy and humanity, as have Nike CEO John Donahue, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Marriot CEO Arne Sorenson. They’ve all worked to share what the pandemic means to them, their families and their businesses.”

The takeaway: “Showing that side is important to brands and leaders in ctimes of crisis,” says Sillaman. “It allows us all to feel more connected.”

Brian Pittman is a Ragan Communications consultant and event producer. Discover more crisis communications insights in Ragan’s Tues., Dec. 8: “Crisis Communications Conference” with speakers from Target, USAA, Walgreens, McDonald’s, Comcast and more.



No Responses to “5 ways to fortify your crisis response for 2021”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    This is marvelous! Havas is on the short list of most searches for multi-country PR guidance on urgent PR decisions. Havas has 1,500 PR pros in 37 countries, and three of the PR team’s guiding principles apply especially to successful management of PR crises.

    .1. Great PR answers should be borderless.

    The core appeal should be fundamental enough to win advocates even thousands of miles and many income levels apart. “What good are you” is a borderless question asked of companies. Your goodness may be measured not alone by the needs and opportunities of one country but of all countries and all peoples.

    What are you doing that makes OUR life better? What do you plan, if anything, that WE can rejoice about?

    The good news about borderless PR is that it doesn’t require that you be saintly and blameless which no one is. Also good news about successful PR ideas that are borderless is that they appeal even to people who may look very different in color, affluence and influence. What can save the neck of a company’s management or a country’s royalty is not freedom from past behavior that could have been better but intended future behavior that protects the public against perils that could hardly be worse.

    “What good are you” is a borderless question, and a brilliant PR answer can result in worldwide approval and support in spite of human frailties that all people have.

    .2. Great PR should communicate ideas people want to talk about.

    There is a human hunger to talk about (a) perils and positive opportunities that now confront vast numbers of us importantly, (b) an awareness, sometimes created by PR, that a coming reality may in fact give the public the blessing or curse that people want to talk about, and (c) WHO may help the public get the wanted protection or avoid the curse.

    .3. Great PR should create meaningful connections between brands and consumers.

    A common blunder of corporate and national leaders in crisis is talking about what would be “fair” or “unfair.” Reality is that the average person—and the vast majority of people—don’t give damn bout fairness to organizations with all kinds of influence and affluence in this world of billions who don’t have enough, so what makes connection meaningful is showing how what will benefit you will benefit the PUBLIC.

    This may actually be easier than at first it sounds because what puts corporate and national leaders in place—and keeps them there—is good decisions, and the goodness of decisions derives from goodness of their effects.

    One of the surest ways of creating meaningful connections between brands and consumers is by showing how a brand may importantly benefit public health. If you can back research by a university to sharply reduce Covid-19, or research by America’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to create successful therapies—or at least measures to protect the cleanliness of our environment—a borderless world of people who pray for salvation may not only favor your organization but actually pray for you.

    You don’t have to invent the wheel because experts are already succeeding with crisis management techniques others can use. Learning about these is a big appeal of crisis management courses and crisis management network membership. The truths we learn from experts at Havas, WPP, Omnicom, Interpublic and Publicis are truths that may make us successful for years to come at creating meaningful connections between the public and organizations that (a) serve the public’s interests and (b) benefit from public
    approval, sometimes almost love.

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