It’s been a tough few weeks for brands.
Blue Bell ice cream was victim of a moronic prank when a young woman thought it would be funny to open a carton, lick the ice cream, close it back up and return it to the grocery store freezer; and L Brands CEO Les Wexner—parent company of retailers Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works—was linked to disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein.
Truth of the matter is, scenarios that jeopardize brand reputations are reported on every week. Remember the United Airlines passenger that was forcibly removed? Or Chipotle’s food safety crisis? Or the data breaches impacting millions of shoppers, credit card holders and others?
Some of these issues are business disrupters; others are enough to shutter an enterprise. The takeaway is that organizations, no matter how large or small, must be ready to assess, respond and manage these issues when they happen.
Here are a few things to consider:
Be fast, first and factual
Being fast and first with your information should always be coupled with being right. The idea is to get in front of the issue with the facts and a response to either preempt a situation or to have a shot at shaping the narrative once something has occurred. Sitting back to see how others might respond leaves a void that others will rapidly fill—via Tweets, posts, memes, news coverage—with information and opinions that can run a wide range between true and false.
In the case of L Brands, the connection between its CEO and the criminally charged Epstein goes back decades, but it’s been reported that Wexner severed all ties 12 years ago when Epstein first pleaded guilty to prostitution charges in Florida. Restating the status of that non-relationship now would be a more effective approach than the no-comment strategy L Brands has chosen to employ this week.
Make it a one-day story, not a three-part mini-series
When you let others tell your story, instead of telling it yourself, you’re left to react to the news. That’s true whether your story starts on social media, in a blog, on the evening news or all three. When information leaks out bit by bit, or is wrong or misinterpreted, you’re not likely to provide the big picture at once, which means you end up trying to correct or reshape the information over a longer period of time. Instead of reacting to the news, again and again, present the facts yourself, and be the first to do it. Even in a situation that’s negative or potentially damaging, it’s better to own up, upfront, on your terms, instead of letting the information take on a life of its own. Plus, you can better manage the issue by providing context and a framework proactively so that the story can be reported and received fully and accurately—all at once. Blue Bell is a good example. The company was slow to respond and never posted anything on social platforms and thus, the story dragged on all week.
Don’t wing it
If you don’t know the answer or don’t have the complete solution figured out, don’t speculate about what might’ve happened or might have caused the problem. It’s better to let people know what your path to the solution is, rather than guessing at what the outcome might be. Then you can follow up with updates as needed.
Know who your allies—and detractors—are
Enlisting the support of a relevant third-party voice can be an effective strategy for reinforcing your position or response. In the case of Blue Bell, a well-placed statement from an ice cream manufacturers association could’ve been helpful in establishing the industry’s best practices, manufacturing standards and precautions regarding packaging, for example.
On the flip side, it’s equally important to know who or what might be disruptive to your issues management or crisis communications response. Smart brands do that assessment as part of issues management planning—what voices can you anticipate will be in opposition to yours? In the heat of the moment, you can monitor for voices in real-time on social media and news coverage and determine whether you need to correct content or evolve or amplify your messaging as a result.
Create an issues management plan
Create a turn-key protocol so that all of the preliminary logistics can be established. Who should be part of your issues management team? Do you know, specifically, how to get in touch with your important audiences quickly? Are there people or other organizations of influence that you should know about and have relationships with, in case you need their support? What’s the current perception of your organization in the marketplace and how would that factor into an issues management process? What will the chain of communications look like should a negative issue emerge?
Answers to questions like these can inform a measured response plan.
Christine Reimert is Executive Vice President at Devine + Partners in Philadelphia.