Curtis Sparrer
Curtis Sparrer

Far too many tech companies don’t have a crisis communications playbook. Which is counterintuitive, because tech companies are particularly vulnerable to crises.

Technology may drive economic growth, but many U.S. citizens don’t trust it, or, at the very least, have a love/hate relationship with its applications.

No matter that technology is an integral part of our lives, the “ick” factor looms large over Big Tech’s essential services, from fears of bias in artificial intelligence to worries of being spied on 24/7 and resentment that algorithms decide what we see on social media. Fan-favorite Disney may be given the benefit of the doubt if there’s a breach of some sort, but that goodwill doesn’t extend to tech companies.

Consumers don’t have a “soft spot” for Facebook, Twitter or the smaller players they haven’t heard of. In fact, it’s typically the opposite. We may be addicted to Facebook and Twitter, but when something goes wrong, the inevitable pouncing is quick to begin.

Besides general negative sentiment, there are several specific crises that tech companies may encounter and that can affect a significant negative impact on their reputation and their bottom line. Some of the more common are:

  • Hackers breach a network and access corporate and/or customer confidential information.
  • Product or service liabilities are exposed.
  • Anti-trust suits can follow.
  • Fraudulent sales and marketing practices lead to litigation.
  • Executive personal misbehavior makes headlines.
  • Social media is flooded with customer complaints.

A detailed crisis communications plan is a must-have for every tech company, no matter its size. What follows are five recommendations tech companies should consider in their crisis communications planning.

Lesson 1: be proactive, not reactive

What continues to surprise our agency is that many tech companies are still unprepared for managing a crisis that is bound to go public.

A little preparation goes a long way. Things will go wrong. Crises will happen. Have your PR agency or internal team develop a step-by-step crisis communications plan before you are hacked or find yourself on the wrong side of the social or political divide.

Go through each scenario (i.e., if we’re hacked, we will ...) and decide on specific courses of action—and who in your organization will be responsible for carrying out that action. Assigning responsibility is key; you don’t want to be scurrying around while in the midst of a crisis wondering who the lead is on the response effort. Make sure your plan includes social media engagement (see below).

Lesson 2: accept responsibility

You may get away with mishandling or ignoring a crisis one time—or maybe even several times—but eventually you will be faced with a crisis that can’t be ignored. Even the emperor was called out eventually for not wearing any clothes.

Companies have always been reluctant to apologize when they screw up. Especially tech companies like Twitter and Facebook. When things do go wrong, don’t take to Twitter and rail against your evil competition for causing the crisis. Taking responsibility takes courage, but it’s always the better path forward. Your clients, employees and the public at large will applaud you for doing so.

Take the time to assess the situation, and then implement the necessary steps to mitigate the crisis. If an apology is appropriate, then apologize. It’s also a great time to remind the public of your company’s long-standing integrity and commitment to the common good.

Lesson 3: social media is your frenemy

Social media is your best friend when all’s right in the world. But as we’ve all witnessed, social media feeds off bad news and details of your crisis can go viral in nanoseconds. Social media monitoring is always important but even more so during a crisis. Have engagement strategies and tactics in place for activation when a crisis happens. Check on the activities of the nay-sayers and have at the ready predefined advocates and thought leaders who can rapidly provide content that can counter false claims with known facts.

In addition, scrutinize the brand’s entire set of stakeholders, paying special attention to any red-hot issues that are gathering attention. Which leads to …

Lesson 4: engage in authentic two-way communication

For tech companies, listening and responding appropriately to the public and your stakeholders are essential. Active listening—via social media and digital media outlets—will keep you informed as to your stakeholder’s concerns. Make sure your stakeholder group extends to employees and brand managers. Take note of what happened when Facebook and Salesforce didn’t acknowledge employees’ concerns over corporate decisions. Facebook’s employees held a virtual walkout and Salesforce’s employees held an actual walkout.

Active listening will also help inform your communications team on how to respond when a crisis hits. Do your stakeholders tend to respond to direct statements? Or do they prefer humor? Ongoing two-way engagement will give you the answer.

Lesson 5: trust and integrity are key

Crisis in today’s world is bound to happen. Being prepared is certainly key, but if your brand isn’t considered trustworthy or viewed as having integrity, you could apologize 24/7, but it might not help alleviate the situation.

Consumers want to feel aligned with the brands that they interact with—yes, even their tech brands. Recent studies show that trustworthiness is the top trait that makes consumers feel aligned with a brand. Integrity is next. Being recognized as trustworthy and having integrity provide you with some capital when something does go wrong. Your fans will rally to your side and give you that much-needed benefit of the doubt.

Having a communications plan in place is the most effective method to offset the perils of a crisis. It’s not the time to be learning on the fly. To ensure the plan is vigorously and expertly executed, engage the assistance of a public relations crisis management professional.


Curtis Sparrer is Co-Founder and Principal at Bospar in San Francisco.