Improve your crisis PR management with a triage approach

Not every bump in the road calls for all-out war. Here’s how to determine what level of response is appropriate.

Social media monitoring can alert brands of customer service problems and potential reputation-damaging issues. Just remember that not every problem or negative exchange is a crisis.

Some organizations may feel compelled to react to every problem with a public statement or social media post. Ironically, that can draw more attention to the initial issue and inadvertently increase reputational damage.

A poor review or disparaging social media post does not qualify as a crisis, at least not usually or initially. Triaging, or sorting issues revealed through social media listening, is the first step in determining the appropriate crisis management response. It’s essential to recognize what’s a crisis and what’s merely an issue needing a resolution.

Convince & Convert cites three elements that can transform a social media problem into a PR crisis:

Lack of information. If you know less than your critics or people at the scene of an incident, you have cause for concern. Such lack of knowledge creates a dangerous information dissymmetry. Once you gain information, the crisis eases.

A substantial change. Some brands routinely receive criticisms—typically the same critiques from the same people. For instance, Nike and Chick-Fil-A routinely receive criticisms due to their positions on political and social issues. A decisive change from the established volume levels or patterns of information signals potential trouble. Watch for new issues and a sudden increase in the volume of negative comments.

A highly undesirable outcome. An issue that affects a substantial portion of customers or prompts broad interest can lead to long-term reputational damage. “A highly undesirable outcome means that the issue affects or is of interest to a very large portion of your customers or prospective customers and has potential to do lasting brand damage,” says Jay Baer and Lauren Teague of Convince & Convert. “Thus, if you’re a regional or national company, local shortcomings don’t usually signify a crisis, unless the underlying issue is not geographically specific.”

Who is talking?

Some organizations establish an average volume threshold of negative mentions for the brand. Media monitoring can trigger a warning when mentions surpass that mark. Many organizations measure volume or the number of media mentions, even in the midst of a PR crisis. It’s often more important, though, to determine exactly who is saying what. How are clients and influencers reacting to the crisis? Their reactions will have the most impact and may require targeted responses.

Katie Goodale, associate director of PR and social media at Hiebing, defines three tiers of crises in a crisis management guidebook. Each calls for a response. They include:

Multichannel crises. These pose the greatest risk. Allegations of workplace harassment, product recalls or corporate impropriety attract extensive negative media attention and social media commentary. They call for multipronged responses on the organization’s website and social media platforms, as well as responses to media outlets. A well-developed crisis response plan is the best defense for such crises.

Emerging crises. These are typically customer complaints, which can likely be defused if tackled quickly. Sometimes the one-on-one approach of contacting the complaining customer directly is preferable to a community-wide response. “Always monitor all social channels so that when criticisms emerge you are prepared to respond immediately to that specific person, or people,” Goodale emphasizes. “This way, your company can remain in charge of the narrative and can ensure the issue stays small.”

Industry-adjacent crises. These are typically crises by association. If a vendor or competitor experiences a problem, it may also infect consumer opinion of your organization. The key is to be proactive. While you are monitoring your own social channels, make sure to monitor those of any competitors or vendors whose crises could reflect negatively on your organization. Once you become aware of an incident, release statements as quickly as possible to distance your brand from the problem.

Bottom line: Not all negative brand mentions call for a full-blown PR crisis response. Overreacting to potential issues can aggravate the situation. Organizations can determine their level of response by using both news monitoring and social media monitoring to categorize the severity of potential problems.

A version of this post first appeared on the blog.

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