Michelle Ubben
Michelle Ubben

We’re only human. That is, we’re all prone to make mistakes. And by extension, our organizations are just one flawed, human moment away from significant and long-term brand damage, leading to loss of reputation, revenue, customers, and market share. That’s nothing new. What has changed in the digital world are the ways a crisis can originate, how quickly the damage can occur and spread and how long it can last.

The fundamental principles of crisis management remain as true today as ever: Get out in front of your crisis and manage it, tell your own story rather than waiting for others to tell it for you, tell the truth and get all the facts out in one big release if possible, and communicate with all of your most important audiences.

O'Dwyer's Jan. '19 PR Buyer's Guide & Crisis Communications MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '19 PR Buyer's Guide & Crisis Communications Magazine

Rather than changing the playbook, the digital world has raised the ante, amplified the urgency, and magnified the importance of responding to a crisis quickly and well. Word travels fast in a time of instant notifications and social shares, so brand-keepers must assume that awareness of their crisis will be broad and swift. Mishandling a crisis in the early minutes and days can be devastating: In a recent Sachs Media Group Breakthrough Research survey, 61 percent of respondents said a company’s handling of a PR crisis affected their decision whether to do business with that brand. Among the much-courted younger demographic of 18 to 34 year olds, the number was even higher — 67 percent.

So, how is the digital world impacting how a crisis unfolds, and how should brands respond? Some recent crises provide good lessons.

Take decisive and dramatic action

It used to be that a crisis didn’t become a crisis until a story broke in the media. Today, many a crisis erupts on social media thanks to a smartphone video, escalates when influencers comment and share, and evolves when other people keep the story alive with new information (not all of it accurate). Traditional media pickup becomes the secondary crisis when reporters chase a story that is trending on a social platform. When a crisis grows “legs,” a brand in the crosshairs needs to take responsibility and act swiftly and decisively.

A crisis erupted for Starbucks in April, when a customer posted a video on Twitter of two black men being arrested after they didn’t order anything. The video generated heavy social shares and sparked protests. The incident was amplified by influential social media users such as Young Turks commentator Shaun King, who has a Twitter following of 1 million and retweeted posts about the incident. The crisis then expanded when a second video about a black customer being denied use of the restroom at a Los Angeles Starbucks emerged. Traditional media jockeyed for the story — a competition won by “Good Morning America” when it broadcast the first interview with Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, the pair arrested in Philadelphia.

Although it took Starbucks nearly a month and a half to put this crisis to bed, it ultimately succeeded by taking the dramatic step of closing 8,000 of its coffee shops for a half-day of anti-bias training. That bold step conveyed far more credibility than simply announcing a new training program — it showed that the company was willing to forgo four hours of sales to induce a culture change. It also meant the gesture could not be missed and would generate a nationwide buzz, taking negative stories and calls for a boycott and replacing them with positive media coverage and social comments.

Even King circled back with a positive message about the coffee house on Twitter, “I’m proud of Starbucks for this.”

People expect information; give it to them

A time-tested principle of crisis management is to keep the media informed with regular, predictable briefings so they will look to the brand as a trusted information source, rather than getting information from wherever they can find it. It’s still important to keep the media fed, but in the digital world all audiences expect a steady flow of updated information. Fortunately, brands have never had more tools to communicate directly with customers and other essential audiences. Smart brands use these tools effectively to quell rumors, reduce upset, put a likeable human face on the company, and retain brand loyalty during a period of trial.

When 700 Southwest Airlines flights were grounded in July 2016, after the airline’s computer system went down, their customers were inconvenienced and understandably upset. Rather than hiding and dodging, Southwest used all its owned communications platforms to give customers real-time information about the causes of the problem and clear guidance about what to expect and how to rebook flights or get a refund. The airline launched a new online resource, Southwest Community, to post explanations and updates. It leveraged videos with top Southwest executives that struck the right chords — leading with an apology, then expressing empathy for the plight of their customers, and finally offering clear explanations about how to get help.

Smart brands predict and prepare

The best way to survive a crisis is to anticipate and prepare for it. That means honestly assessing your brand’s vulnerabilities and thinking through a course of action to respond. While social media can fuel a crisis, it also provides a powerful window into the minds of customers and other interested audiences, if monitored closely. In 2018, we saw examples of some brands using social monitoring to protect their reputation and forestall the crisis, while other brands missed the signs and endured some unnecessary brand damage.

When Build-A-Bear announced a one-day Pay Your Age promotion to take place, it was a genius marketing and PR move that generated significant positive media coverage and social love. But the unprecedented spike in social media engagement should have been a tip-off to the company that customer response might outpace their fulfillment potential. Instead, eager parents and children stood for hours in long lines outside stores, only to be disappointed. In some locations, lines were cut off, while in others stores were shut down altogether. Build-A-Bear’s brand sentiment plunged and its CEO had to go on the “Today Show” to apologize.

Like many crises, this one was self-inflicted and avoidable. Savvy brands can use social media monitoring as a crystal ball to anticipate a crisis, and certainly as a window to observe brand damage as it happens in order to react swiftly.

While it’s too soon to say which companies will endure brand-threatening crises in 2019, it’s beyond question that there will be some doozies. How does a brand avoid damage in a digital world?

• Assess your brand weaknesses and threats, and put a crisis plan and quick-response guide in place now.

• Make sure your core messaging is fresh and reflects your corporate values. Based on that messaging, create a social media response guide that anticipates most common crisis scenarios.

• Appoint a crisis response team and train your leaders so they are able to deliver your messages effectively, truthfully, and with empathy.

• Inventory your owned platforms and consider how you will use them to get information out to all your important audiences in a crisis.

• Establish social monitoring and look for trends in how your brand is perceived.

• Don’t wait for a crisis to do the right thing.

The best defense for any crisis is preparation. Because in today’s fast-moving, hyper-connected world, it’s a matter of when, not if.

Click here to view our Top 10 Tips for Managing Your Crisis.


Michelle Ubben is Partner and President at Sachs Media Group.