Travis Taylor (L) and Chris Raniere co-authored this article.
Not everyone is cut out to handle a crisis. The deluge of cynical media coverage, a rise of brand detractors and a surge of social media haters can overwhelm even seasoned PR pros.
Fortunately for your brand, that’s not you. Unfortunately, not everyone is like you, and that’s a problem with lasting implications, especially among team members unfamiliar with crisis communications.
Sensitive situations — e.g., injuries, fatalities, criminal investigations, litigation, product recalls, sexual misconduct, activist protests and corporate malfeasance — can trigger negative publicity. While PR pros tend to focus on turning the tide of media coverage, the lack of a cohesive multi-channel response can keep the story rising from the dead, long past the news cycle.
This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '18 PR Buyer's Guide & Crisis Communications Magazine
Internal communications, social media, reputation management, SEO, executive positioning and stakeholder engagement all play critical roles in crisis response and reputation recovery.
Internal communications usually intensify during and immediately after a crisis. Because employees and board members are often your most effective ambassadors, if you wait until a crisis strikes before developing and managing strategic internal communications programs, it’s too late. Once the crisis passes, consider revamping your internal communications processes to build trust among employees and board members and prepare the ship to weather the next storm.
Social media mavens are generally wired to promote good news, but a bad review or menacing troll, let alone a crisis, can short circuit their reactions. Cookie-cutter responses and canned messaging don’t sit well with people who follow and react to crises on social media. So, just as with internal communications, if you haven’t built relationships with your social media communities, you’re already behind the curve. Work now to earn influencers’ favor. Use content lulls to lift the veil on transparency initiatives and tout advances and investment in safety, training and technology. Brand loyalists will take note and respond to trolls on your behalf — when they’re equipped with the tools to do so.
Google Search is the well-heeled stranger lurking in the shadow of every crisis.
Every PR pro knows a negative story, especially a salacious one, attracts far more clicks than puff and fluff. Lesser-known brands — even those with strong reputations — are not immune to damaging stories following a crisis. Without a robust reputation management program, negative stories will keep garnering clicks and persist. Don’t believe claims about “scrubbing” negative stories. High-credibility sources, such as major daily newspapers, will continue being favored by Google and other search engines. Rebuilding your online reputation will take time, but you can’t do it without a focused, proactive program that ties into all your external communications channels to drive relevant traffic to — and boost the search rankings of — favorable content.
In a high-profile crisis, the voice of the CEO and other organizational leaders lets audiences know the situation is receiving top-level attention. A head-in-the-sand approach cannot calm fears or address concerns. C-suite executives should reach out to priority audiences to get your story across. With proper executive positioning among industry associations, regulatory agencies and other critical groups, your voice will be not just heard, but well received. Remember, when the CEO speaks, put it in writing and make sure it is fully optimized for search engines; this content is evergreen and can improve your rankings.
Your credibility can come into question in a crisis. By reaching out to key external stakeholders, you can inject credible, third-party voices into a troublesome story. For example, academic experts are go-to media resources in a crisis. If such experts know your organization and leadership and are comfortable backing your position, it will go a long way toward balancing negative coverage and helping quiet the crisis. Consider reaching out to them in times of crises, or better yet, beforehand.
Brands must align in-house teams with external agency partners to ensure an integrated crisis response. If you have separate teams for PR, marketing, website, social media and/or SEO, and their responses to a crisis are siloed and uncoordinated, it could actually create more damage. Consider consolidating into a streamlined agency team. All channels need to work together in harmony — whether you’re in a crisis or not.
Here are some tips to ensure that all channels work together, unsiloed, in a crisis.
Preparedness is not merely effective. In the long run, it’s cheap. We have found that organizations that develop a realistic crisis response plan covering myriad scenarios and test it with drills are far better prepared than organizations without such a plan. While planning has an up-front cost, handling a crisis by the seat of your pants usually requires more time and money to repair reputational damage that could have been minimized with planning a rehearsed — and integrated — response.
Create an online hub to focus crisis-related content. For major crises, consider creating a microsite to fully address the issue and provide a locus for audiences to track developments, key facts and progress. This will allow customers to maintain their regular experience on your website while providing crisis junkies a venue that steers negative traffic away from your website.
Divert negative search traffic to credible sources. SEO normally promotes keywords to drive traffic to your website. But in a crisis, negative search terms are widely used, so consider developing an online reputation program targeting negative search traffic that drives interested people to your microsite or a special landing page.
Strengthen your social media presence. Social media can drive higher search rankings for shared content, but if you don’t have an active and engaged community on your social media pages, you’ll miss the benefit. Authentic, timely, consistent engagement with social media followers builds trust over time and strengthens brand loyalists who can weigh in during a crisis.
Build a rapid response team. The first minutes of a crisis are critical. Make sure your team, including external partners, is up to speed on your crisis plan and has been drilled. Consider simulation training, table-top exercises and crisis media training to stress-test your plan — and make sure everyone is on the same page. No silos!
Stay on top of trends. One organization’s problem can affect an entire industry. Monitor social and traditional media to assess trends and developments that could affect you. Adjust planning accordingly.
Travis Taylor is EVP of Fineman PR, a San Francisco-based crisis and consumer public relations agency, and Chris Raniere is President of 46Mile, a Hearst-backed, full-service marketing consultancy and ad agency.