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Crisis Management Best Practices in the Digital Age

Date: 10/28/11

A crisis can be anything from a website outage affecting sales to negative media publicity to a product recall. A basic definition of “crisis” is a major, unpredictable event with the potential for negative results. Such an event and its aftermath may damage an organization’s employee morale, products, financial condition, reputation or its brand. No matter the size or scale of the crisis, an organization’s effective and timely response to a crisis is paramount. Everyone can recall crises in recent years that involved significant blunders on the part of major organizations. This article provides best practices regarding an organization’s response to a crisis, including how to select and prepare a company spokesperson and managing an organization’s response through social media channels. 

Preparation is key. An organization should always be prepared for the unexpected. Early preparation will dramatically improve an organization’s ability to respond to a crisis, mitigate damage to its public image and brand, avoid governmental penalties or fines, and prepare for potential litigation. A concept-based crisis management plan is crucial. It should identify an internal crisis response team that can be mobilized quickly to respond to a crisis as soon as it hits. An organization’s internal response team should be tailored to the organization’s needs but should include individuals from several different departments, including executive/management, sales, marketing, engineering, human resources, IT and legal. 

Carefully select the company spokesperson. Selecting, preparing and training the company spokesperson (or spokespeople) is vital and should include analysis of the target audience and the organization’s message. In selecting your company spokesperson, remember the “3 Ps” – personable, proactive and professional. The company spokesperson must be authentic and able to deliver clear, concise messages that convey credibility, confidence and trust. First impressions are vital. The spokesperson should avoid arrogance and should convey empathy where appropriate. A spokesperson must be able to speak to the media. Do not assume someone with public speaking experience is trained to talk to the press. Reporters do not make their own headlines and the spokesperson has the critical role of educating the media/press and correcting misinformation. Finally, your spokesperson must be litigation savvy and have 24/7 access and availability.

Developing your message. A crisis should never be minimized. Transparency is important and no matter what is at stake, customers and the public want to know that the organization is taking the crisis seriously. Always be honest. It is better to explain the situation at the outset and then work towards repairing trust in your consumers rather than apologizing later. Always express your organization’s commitment to safety, health and welfare of its consumers and the public. Never speculate. If you do not know the status of the situation, say so, and explain what steps you are taking to solve the problem. For example, “We have mobilized our crisis response plan and we are diligently investigating the issue. We will provide additional information as soon as it is available. Our utmost concern and priority is the health and safety of our consumers.” Keep in mind that the spokesperson must be quotable, so the quotes must convey the right message. An organization can develop statements in advance for certain situations that can be further tailored when a crisis strikes. Finally, crisis response requires constantly monitoring the situation and developing new and updated messages as events unfold. 

Using social media. Social media is not just about marketing and advertising anymore. Any organization, from a Fortune 100 company to a small family-owned business can utilize social media as a tool in responding to a crisis. Social media provides an opportunity to provide an immediate response that can reach a large number of people in a short period of time. Because social media allows for a widespread dissemination of information, an organization must know how to “speak” social media and use these tools effectively. If you already have a social media presence, you can use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to provide your message, monitor customer response, and engage in a dialogue with customers. Even if you do not have an existing social media presence when a crisis hits, using your company’s webpage to provide updated information and frequent posts that provide immediate feedback to your customers. 

Use of social media also has its risks. Social media is public, so you must take the good with the bad. Social media messages are widely and swiftly disseminated and can allow the public to post any comments, including negative ones. Being able to respond to customer feedback in real time allows the company to turn the negative into a positive situation and defend your company. Because an organization can respond to customer feedback in tweets and immediate posts, engaging in such dialogue needs to stay focused on the organization’s message, the response to the crisis and provide reliable and transparent feedback. 

Best practices for utilizing social media in a crisis.  You must provide a quick and proper response. This requires that you monitor social media outlets and be prepared to respond when a crisis hits, including a response over the weekend or in the middle of the night. Delaying a response could perpetuate negative feedback and comments and put you in “catch-up” mode. There will always be naysayers. An organization needs to address the negative comments but do so in a professional way. Just as your company spokesperson must be transparent, authentic and professional, so too should your personnel monitoring social media outlets. Responses should always be respectful and indicate that the organization appreciates all consumer feedback. The organization should quickly correct inaccurate information posted. It is also permissible to invite pesky negative commentators to contact you directly “off line” for more information and discussion. If things get ugly, always take the high road. If your organization’s response to a tweet was impolite and attracts further negative feedback, then apologize right away and re-direct the focus back to your organization’s message. Like the traditional response to a crisis, transparency and honesty is key. If you do not have a solution to the problem, say so up front but then explain what you are doing to resolve the problem. Finally, constant monitoring is critical. Once you engage in social media, you must continue to provide “real time” updates until the crisis is resolved.

Article By:
Kimberly Baker, Attorney
Williams Kastner
kbaker@williamskastner.com


Arissa Peterson, Senior Associate Attorney
Williams Kastner
apeterson@williamskastner.com

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