Brandon AndersenBrandon Andersen

Henry Kissinger once said, “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.”

Who knows how that tongue-in-cheek declaration turned out, but those certainly aren’t words to live by, especially for PR professionals.

Social media has leveled soapboxes. Now, any average Joe with a blog or social account and a handful of rabid followers can tarnish your brand.

Influence has evolved and so too must crisis communications. Once predicated on reactionary measures, successful crisis communication now requires an equal dose of proactivity.

O'Dwyer's Jan. '16 PR Buyer's Guide and Crisis Communications MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '16 PR Buyer's Guide and Crisis Communications Magazine

Crises emerge suddenly and move across country lines at the speed of a retweet. Perhaps many communicators assume crises strike only highly visible brands or ones in volatile industries. Don’t be fooled. Crisis has no regard for your field, plans or goals.

The good news is modern technology empowers brands to cut down threats before they emerge and mitigate damage should the unexpected strike.

A stitch in time

Crisis doesn’t always involve a C-Suite scandal or dysfunctional products. It can start from a simple miscommunication between buyer and sales rep.

Social media is the 21st century outlet for frustration, especially for those betrayed by brands.

Nearly a third of those who contact brands on social media expect a response within 30 minutes, and 57% expect the same response time at night and on weekends. Even the biggest-budgeted brands will have difficulty meeting those expectations without the proper resources.

Too many rely on just a human touch instead of investing in social listening software. Though PR professionals often disagree about strategy, nearly all (89%) give a thumbs up to social media listening. Despite this, only 37% use the tactic.

Social listening provides advantages in product development, content creation, media pitching, sentiment analysis, and undoubtedly other areas that pioneering brands will identify as the technology saturates the market. Social listening’s role in crisis communication, though, cannot be understated.

It provides 24/7 coverage and eliminates the tediousness and imperfections of manual searches. By searching for keywords—such as your brand’s, products’ and services’ names, related industry topics and common misspellings of each—you will have the pulse of your audience, enabling you to interject, solve issues and mitigate damage.

You can only control your reactions

Even the best proactive measures can’t stop all crises from emerging. This is the time to react with quick, precise and informed communication.

Create a plan that empowers specific individuals to handle specific crises. Lay out who gives final sign off and how long they have to do so. Waiting to mitigate crises only fans the flames.

Include backups, practice and learn from successes and mistakes. The flu or “we’ll do better next time” won’t satisfy an answer-hungry executive. Preparedness helped Scott Peacock, Public Relations Manager of Visit North Carolina, navigate an unusual and scary crisis.

After a series of shark bites off the North Carolina coast, Peacock, as part of the state’s division of tourism, found himself in “full-blown crisis mode.” The media sensationalized the story and news spread fast on social media. Contributing to the turmoil, the crisis overlapped with the 40th anniversary of “Jaws” and the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week”.

“We stuck to the plan as far as understanding the tactics and communication channels at our disposal and how to use each one,” Peacock says. “We’d been through this before, but never this many in this short of time frame and with so many unknowns.”

More than consistent communication, brands need to collaborate with media during crisis just as they would during relative peace. That means helping reporters accurately tell the stories that they have planned.

For Visit North Carolina, many reporters focused on the impact on the state’s tourism revenue. Peacock became a go-to resource, acquiring and synthesizing the data they sought and eventually showing that revenue actually increased because many vacationers spent more time at beachside attractions, restaurants and shops instead of spending the day in the ocean.

Brands shouldn’t rely solely on the media to tell the story, though. They should share their own story, but using only factual information, not spin or half-truths, remains vital.

Peacock and staff assuaged fears by creating content about beach safety that covered everything from sunburn prevention to rip currents and shark bites.

“We didn’t want to create just a shark safety page because that would just exacerbate the issue,” Peacock said. “It covered what we needed (in terms of shark safety), but it wasn’t the focal point of the content.”

Visit North Carolina serves as a model for any brand dealing with crisis, but it wasn’t all hustle and know-how that got them through. Data drove its communication strategy, allowing them to identify the specific paths for handling this situation.

With social listening and media monitoring data, Peacock learned that media coverage of “shark bites” and “shark attacks” was higher than in the previous three decades. It also showed how closely related North Carolina’s beaches were to those terms.

“That’s what really drove the strategy,” Peacock said. “Data is huge. I know not everyone has access to the best monitoring software out there, but whatever you do have access to, make sure you mine it, comb through it and most importantly listen to it.”

A true recovery?

No brand wants to find itself embroiled in controversy, but only the foolhardy will avoid planning for it. By adding proactive measures, building blueprints for crisis procedures and making data-driven decisions, your brand will protect its image, recover from negative incidents and engender goodwill with the public.

“To fully recover, it comes down to transparency, honesty and trust,” Peacock said. “Bad things happen to good organizations, but it’s those three key areas and how you utilize them that determine whether you will make or break.”

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Brandon Andersen is Director of Marketing at Cision.