A while back I wrote about the crisis communication basics eCommerce stores should put in place to make sure they preserve the image of their brand and products in a public crisis.

Since then, I’ve been asked how one would develop a more general crisis communication plan for businesses in the digital space, so I’ve decided to do just that. In the next handful of paragraphs we’ll go through what you need to build a crisis communication framework, whether you sell hairpins, ice cream or aiplane par.

Define the crisis

There are many reasons a marketing manager might panic but not all of them add up to a crisis. Depending on how experienced they are, the normal ups and downs within your online community and personal interpretation of what’s going on, people can easily overreact. Having a clear understanding of what is and what isn’t a crisis, will help everyone managing your accounts stay on the same page.

I find it easier to work with lists that go through the likeliest situations that can turn into a crisis. While a list won’t be exhaustive, and that’s really not the point, it will give those who work with it a number of examples varied enough to allow them to figure our for themselves whether a new situation fits into the mold.

When defining a crisis, think about generic issues that might make your list (ie. a large number of customers complaining about your brand and products’ quality), business specific issues (ie. the ingredients in your creams might be harmful), as well as business mechanics issues (ie. people receive no payments confirmation or receipt for their purchase).

Where might it pop up

Once you have a good idea about what might happen, think about where it might happen. Most businesses think only as far as the channels they’re active on but there’s really no reason why people can’t take to Twitter to trash talk your services, whether you’re on the platform or not.

If you’ve tailored your marketing strategy to account for the mediums your customers are already active in, you should already have a good chunk of the platforms where a crisis might pop up covered. A crisis communication strategy, however, should account for those you’re not active on as well, because gossip and negativity easily snowball online.

For instance, you might have correctly targeted Twitter, Pinterest and a handful of blogs as environments your audience generally hangs out in but some topics, like harmful ingredients present in your products, have the potential to reach far beyond and be picked up by mainstream media.

Think in layers

Much like Netflix dramas, not every crisis has the same intensity and impact and to avoid a disproportional reply that would make your brand look ridiculous, your responses to a crisis should be tailored to the potential impact of said crisis. It’s easier to think about this impact in layers.

When your customers are unhappy, they’ll generally say so by seeking out your customer service reps, private message you on social media or publicly mention you on social media with their complaint. The more unhappy the customer, the more public the medium. This is your first layer and should distinguish between the normal complaints a business gets and the beginnings of a crisis, as the first is a singular issue that a customer service rep can deal with himself and the second is an issue affecting multiple customers who are becoming vocal about it.

The second layer of a potential crisis should deal with persistent issues, your entire invoicing system is down for several hours as opposed to minutes, that impacts a significant number of users who may or may not already have begun to make noise about it online.

The third layer is your worst-case scenario and should account for instances such as customers having to pay for their products upon delivery as the online payment didn’t register in your system. These situations combine a business mechanics/ product or service quality issue that affects one or more customers with the potential to draw interest from people normally disinterested in your business and tops it off with a potential backlash even after you’ve solved the problem.

Tailor responses

Sometimes, you may solve a customer’s issue but because of the number of people it affect, the frequency with which it occurs and the nature of the problem itself, there’s a real potential to impact how people see your brand overall, so you’ll need to minimise that through a short-term campaign.

Determining what issues fit each layer of impact will allow you to tailor effective responses to each and think about when it’s time to step in and develop a broader communication strategy about the issue rather than let customer reps work on them alone.

Issues that fall within the first layer can spiral out control if the efforts of your customer service department aren’t supplemented by a post stating you’re aware of the issue, you’re sorry about it, you expect to have the service up and running by such time and here are the things you’re doing to fix it.

While the first layer of impact involves customers who are already vocal about an issue, the second layer deals with issues which, due to their potential impact, don’t necessarily have to have been voiced by your customers yet, in order to become a problem and, therefore, requires a preemptive response, across multiple channels and multiple days.

The third layer, and the most serious one, has the potential to irreparably damage your business’ reputation, therefore, has to factor in situations that don’t require the public to have already become even aware of the issue. One such example could be that you’re selling cosmetics that you’ve just found out have been tested on animals. This isn’t just likely to infuriate your existing customers but it’s likely to make you a target for mainstream media, animal rights groups and every concerned activist with a keyboard and online account.

Issues in your third layer of impact have to be dealt with ass soon as you’ve become aware of them, through multiple channels, across a number of weeks, through several pieces of content and sponsored actions. No matter how good, a communications strategy won’t be successful unless it has a corresponding business action – withdrawing the products in question and all other product lines with similar issues.

Who – what – where

Determining who delivers your brand message and where is just as important as defining the message itself. Having Jennifer, Head of Sales and Marketing, deliver a message about your flawed invoicing system isn’t likely to be as trusted and well-received as it would if the same message had been delivered by the head of that department. So the response to each potential crisis has to be paired with a relevant spokesperson who is trusted to have a valid opinion, implement the solution and, preferably, has the public profile to validate his/ her expertise.

The where comes down the environment that will allow you to host the format you’ve determined is best (press release, news item, video interview, etc). You may have multiple pieces of content, so you may need to account for multiple environments, including ones that allow for open conversation, such as social media.

In addition to the main content pieces you respond to a crisis through, you will need to incorporate individual replies in your strategy. People might have additional questions which they are likely to address through social media, so you’ll need to also think about who will reply, what, to which questions/ concerns and in what way. In this case, your best bet is to also formulate a short Q&A for social media reps and communication managers. This isn’t a one glove fits all type of thing so, even if you reuse some questions and answers,  you’ll need to come up with a new one for each instance.

The Bottom Line

No brand plans to get in trouble but, no matter how secure you feel, you need to have a plan for when you do get in trouble. Statistically, the longer you’re in business and the faster you expand, the bigger the likelihood you will, at some point, face a crisis.

How badly your business is bruised by it, greatly depends on whether you already have the mechanisms in place to respond to a crisis. Learning to effectively deal with smaller issues will ensure that if you ever do face a major problem, you will already have the means to minimise the damage and preserve your brand’s good name.

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