How to avoid the knee-jerk reaction to crisis response
Strengthen your playbook with these strategic techniques.
Consumers across the board are not shy about letting brands know where they mucked up – and communicators, for the most part, are interested in responding to crises as they come as well.
According to the 2nd Annual HarrisX & Ragan CEO/Communicators Perceptions Survey, published last October, about three in five CEOs and communications professionals “believe organizations should generally take a stand on issues of public interest.”
The survey adds that 58% of comms leaders said that organizations should take a stand on public issues; 42% said orgs should avoid taking positions.
While brands grabbing a rhetorical bullhorn and publicly making a stand on public-interest issues – ranging from LGBTQ+ and voting rights –can be a fan favorite – there are times when strategic silence is the best route.
A virtual Ragan Training Public Affairs & Speechwriting Conference on the topic of“Communicating Trust Through Chaos: Moving from Panic to Power in Any Crisis” discussed striking while the iron’s hot and holding off.
Don’t spread yourself too thin
Responding to every crisis just for the sake of responding is a recipe for disaster and coming across as disingenuous.
Adam Pratt, director of Issues and Policy Communications at IBM, said that if there is an issue that stakeholders are passionate about, the comms department has to “look at it through the broader lens of a company.” At a large organization like IBM, which is spread across 170 countries with 240,000 employees, strategy is key and picking your battles is key.
“We can’t spread the peanut butter action too thin or else we’re not making a difference anywhere,” Pratt said.
Panelist Dave Fleet, head of Global Digital Crisis, Edelman, talked about how even if crisis comms experts want to respond, some don’t have the capability as not every business is equipped to handle such issues.
Fleet shared a 2022 Edelman study, “Connected Crisis: In search of stability amidst chaos,” which detailed key findings around crisis management as the fastest-growing area of responsibility for company heads today.
“Those executives are telling us that they don’t have the right skill sets on their teams to navigate this kind of landscape, whether it be the spread of misinformation, threats, facing protests or something else, Fleet said.
Fleet said that “we’ve just entered a world of crisis nowadays,” which is impacting brands’ response strategies.
“So, crises used to be these things that would happen in like moments in time and then they’d go away,” he said. “But if you think about what the last two years have been like, and what we’ve all faced, we’ve gone from one issue to another nonstop.”
Fleet referenced the pandemic, issues of racial justice the Russia-Ukraine conflict, abortion rights, the rise of AI and more.
With brands feeling the heat of handling crises and expected to do more than produce a tweet or statement, being proactive is key.
But how does a brand handle a crisis in the moment when there isn’t much time to deploy a thought-out communication strategy? After all, a crisis plan can’t cover every contingency.
Panelist Bradley Akubuiro, partner, of Bully Pulpit Interactive, said that leading with trust through the chaos is one way to connect.
“As folks are thinking about what to weigh in to and how to weigh in, you really have to figure out what is your north star?” Akubuiro said. “As we talk to leaders … it’s really helping folks decide what is going to make sense for my business and feel authentic.”
Then consider what issues the brand already engages in and what will really come across as sincere.
“If you are responding to every shift in the wind and every new dynamic that comes up at some point, you’re gonna get caught in a situation where what you say or what you do does not align with things that are actually true to who you are,” he said. “And hypocrisy is one of the greatest pitfalls of this type of work.”
Mind the (comms) gap
Beyond how crises are communicated, what action is done to back up your talk? Leaning on trust and transparency can bridge the gap.
Pratt said that IBM refreshed its crisis comms handbook “from the ground up,” leaning on a full set of tactics that address the key players who should respond locally.
“What are the hard questions that you need to ask them in an initial fact-finding mission?” Pratt asked of broader crises plans, adding that immediate action also plays a part. “When is it time to wake someone up in the middle of the night in the US and then what are some of the guiding principles that you need to follow if you’re the one that gets the phone call and starts working on an initial response?”
Writing empathetically, clearly and consistently while presenting facts as they come – and setting expectations around a further cadence of communications – can go a long way for all on the receiving end, Pratt explained.
Sherri Kolade is a writer at Ragan Communications. When she is not with her family, she enjoys watching Alfred Hitchcock-style films, reading and building an authentically curated life that includes more than occasionally finding something deliciously fried. Follow her on LinkedIn. Have a great PR story idea? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How we feel about striking while the iron is hot should depend on whether we strike them or they strike us.
Whether we take a stand on public issues should certainly depend on what they are. Taking a corporate stand on abortion would be crazy no matter which side the company favors. Taking a stand on whether to back health research may depend partly on our target audience because none so love life as those who grow old.
In deciding whose ideas to adopt or even consider, look closely at what they want to sell you. “Reductio ad absurdum” means reduction to absurdity, and “seductio ad absurdum” should be the Latin name of a peril we avoid.
Urgently important in Crisis PR is to not be a loser in the blame game.
When activists accuse your company of a dirty deed, PR wisdom may be to point out truthfully: “Look closely and you can see it’s someone else, not us. We’re on the side of the public.” Almost always when something terrible has been done, management will get rid of the guilty and can thereafter say truthfully: “The complaint is about not the whole company but about people no longer with us. This company is strongly on the side of the public.”
If you get management to have Edelman or another great PR firm announce this, they’ll almost surely to it masterfully and you’ll get credit for bringing in the experts.