The secret to modern crisis response success

Don’t just muddle through when disaster strikes your organization. Here are some tips to come back stronger than ever.

A reputational crisis is not a matter of if, but when

Crunch these numbers: Deloitte’s Global’s crisis management survey found that nearly 60% of the 500 respondents believe that organizations face more crises today than they did 10 years ago, yet only 17% of those organizations are truly prepared. The survey revealed conspicuous gaps between an organization’s response confidence versus their level of preparedness.

About one-quarter (26%) of marketing and PR pros have crisis plans that have not been reviewed in over a year, according to a joint study by PR News and Crisp, a crisis monitoring firm.

What’s more, most crisis management plans don’t account for the speed of social media. The international law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer reported that it takes organizations 21 hours to deploy a legally approved external response. You don’t have that much time anymore.

Simply put, at some point in your career, you’ll find your organization in crisis mode. 

If you’re really good, you will not only have a plan before the need to execute it, but will also have established the groundwork in advance. It still might not be enough.

The world has moved on from environmental scanning and rote empathy responses as key constructs of the mediation team. Don’t risk letting your crisis management program become outdated and archaic. 

As you update your response blueprints for 21st-century crisis management, keep these six areas in mind:

  1. Prioritize your internal stakeholders. Far too often organizations focus their energy on the external forces causing the crisis that they forget to address how their staff is handling the issue. People internalize crises: “How does this affect me?” Crises trigger insecurity and fear, yet employees are usually the last audience to be addressed during or after a crisis—and sometimes not at all. Acknowledge what your own people might be going through; you’ll probably need their help in managing the situation.
  2. Monitor social media. Key tabs on all channels, beyond Facebook and Twitter. International sites such as Wechat and Weibo can afford insights as to how organizations must consider shareholder and stakeholder relations. Even if you aren’t familiar with a channel, that doesn’t mean it’s not being used to host negative and damaging information about your organization. Similarly, watching trends unfold on channels like Reddit can offer insights and afford you a proactive means to handle a crisis. 
  3. Emphasize diverse representation. Consider who is at the table, and who isn’t represented at all. It’s never been clearer that homogenous groups create mistakes that heterogeneous groups would not. Surrounding yourself with people that look like you, think like you, and make decisions like you is a fatal flaw of governance and of business leadership. If you want to consider all perspectives and solve problems better, then clear a spot at the table for a multitude of perspectives, and craft a strategy that is inclusive instead of exclusive. Making choices in a vacuum can add additional insult to the injury that has occurred. Work smarter. 
  4. Align the official response with the severity of the crisis. With social media fueling the fire, a response centered on one communication channel simply will not work. Today’s digitally driven environment calls for more. In addition to standard video responses, a dedicated website where stakeholders can find answers to their questions, in-person discussions, messages via the organization’s social media pages and text messages, try using technology such as AlertMedia, Firechat, Bridgefy and even IT solutions such as Everbridge.
  5. Capitalize on strengths. If your organization’s spokesperson lacks social presence or comes off as unsympathetic, mechanical or aloof, find the right person to represent your organization—or find a channel where they thrive. The last thing you want to do is compromise your response strategy because your spokesperson is being publicly criticized. 
  6. Identify your “new normal.” Prepare and communicate for life after the crisis. There is no such thing as going back to “normal. The status your organization held prior to the crisis no longer exists. Given that, prepare your internal and external stakeholders for the next phase. Outline what the organization has learned, what’s going to change, and how these changes affect not only employees but the organization itself. Even if the crisis is over, that doesn’t mean the work is. The toughest work is only just beginning.

Adrienne A. Wallace (@adriwall) is an assistant professor in advertising/public relations at Grand Valley State University. Regina Luttrell (@ginaluttrell) is an assistant professor of public relations/social media and the interim director of the graduate program of PR at Syracuse University. 


2 Responses to “The secret to modern crisis response success”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    In addition to using the excellent PR wisdom above, you have these additional opportunities.

    USE THE NEWS the public cares about most—how the crisis stands to affect the public’s safety and costs. Often, an organization involved in a crisis has experts who can provide the public with information on this that the public will appreciate about very much.

    TELL HOW YOU ARE PROTECTING THE PUBLIC by attacking the cause of the public’s problem (the cause of the crisis) and by holding down damage to the public caused by the problem.

    SHOW HOW IT’S THEM, NOT US—how a small number of people associated with the problem are no longer with the company (if ever they were) and how 99.9% of your company’s people had nothing to do with causing the problem but are helping to protect the public.

    HAVE YOUR CONGRESSMAN or mayor tell how the government and your people are working together to end the crisis, prevent recurrence, and help the public. HAVE TOP DOCTORS, PROFESSORS AND RELIGIOUS LEADERS you’ve helped tell what they and your company are doing to protect the pubic and what the public will be doing to protect itself.

    HAVE YOUR PR FIRM stay in the closest possible touch with their media contacts so you can gather facts to correct misimpressions and quietly keep your top management informed of what it my NEED to know.

    EXPRESS DEEP SYMPATHY BUT NOT GUILT. You can and should be genuinely
    sorry but without taking the blame especially since it may only be in the future that blame can be accurately allocated. In truth, written company policies have existed to protect the public including your own people, and your company will be doing even more to protect the public because the public and your company are co-victims. But with God’s help, more work by experts and perhaps more action by our government, the company is working night and day to create a better future.

    These are important truths. Success in crisis management can BEGIN with a presentation of truths the public cares about and can END with increased awareness of truths about ways in which your company is a blessing for the public. All people being human may make mistakes or have accidents but dedicated human beings at your company are dedicated to making things better to protect the public interest in many ways. This is It’s the truth and truths well communicated can protect. With skill you may come out of a crisis with even more goodwill than you had before. .

    Once the smoke has cleared, consider doing something more for the congressman, mayor, hospitals, universities and religious groups. If what the
    wise Professors Wallace and Luttrell call your “table” has not had enough diversity, correct this. If you launch a major research program with Mayo Clinic to protect children, or with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to eliminate some of the cancers now killing one in every four of us, 50 million or 100 million Americans may be strongly on your management’s side next time you are involved in a crisis.

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    You may increase your FUTURE crisis response success, and look to your management like even even more of a PR genius, depending on what you do NOW before the trouble.

    The idea could be called “Gelt by Association.” You reduce management’s peril of loss caused by crisis, and you increase management’s profit even before then, by increasing the impact your company gets from profit-by-association sport sponsorships.

    “US corporate spending on sports sponsorships grew to an estimated $20 billion,” says McKinsey & Company. Yet many companies are “missing huge opportunities to magnify a sponsorship’s impact on sales,” adds the world’s leading management consultant’s website.

    Of five metrics cited by McKinsey “to measure the performance of sponsorship spending,” the first is “cost per reach.” Other measures are “unaided awareness per reach, sales/margin per dollar spent, long-term brand attributes” and “indirect benefits.”

    PR experts can magnify a sponsorship program’s impact on sales by DIVERSIFYING the sponsorships to include not only heroes of sport who thrill us but also heroes of medicine whose achievements both thrill us and protect our lives.

    In five ways, additional to the five metrics cited by McKinsey, PR-guided diversification of sponsorships can sharply increase the sponsor’s success.

    .1. MORE IMPACT PER REACH. By sponsoring top doctors the way athletes are sponsored, you can show not only thrilling achievements in sport that entertain us but also—what some people may care about even more—thrilling achievements in medicine that may give us longer lives, more fitness and sharper minds.

    .2. MORE CONSUMERS INFLUENCED. In addition to influencing sports fans, diversified sponsorships can bring in gratitude from millions of women and older Americans who may not be major sport fans but are certainly major consumer groups worth influencing.

    .3. MORE WINS IN WASHINGTON. When your corporate fate is partly in the hands of Washington leaders, which way are they more likely to feel warmly toward you—if you sponsor only athletes or if you’ve diversified at no increase in budget so you also sponsor doctors and hospitals that work 24 hours a day to protect us.

    .4. MORE GRATITUDE FROM MINORITIES. Top research doctors at famed Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center include Baghdad-born Dr. Anas Younes who is a world champion at finding drugs that fight cancer, Israel-born Dr. Joachim Yahalom who is a world-famous doctor at finding ways to use radiation so cancer cells are killed but the patient lives, turban-wearing Dr. Jaspreet Sandhu. a Sikh from India who keeps developing ways so our insides will work right even after an organ is removed, and innovative Dr. Sherri Donat who is one of the world’s top female surgeons. Scores of top Memorial Sloan Kettering doctors, some world-famous, are black or Hispanic.

    .5. MORE SAFETY FOR YOUR COMPANY. If an athlete you sponsor is accused of drugs, violence against a woman, DWI or some other crime, your company can be in trouble with millions if you continue to sponsor the accused—or with other millions if you don’t—but doctors may be much less likely to cause you such a problem.

    Diversification–which pays off in employment and investments–can also add impact in sponorships. You create national appreciation that can both protect your management and increase sales. What you are doing, 100 million Americans can see, “is helping people like me.”

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