Why Are Big Brands Still Mangling Crisis Response? Take These 6 Steps to Make Sure You Don’t

In an age when bad news spreads at the speed of a tweet and goes worldwide within seconds, it’s never been more important for companies to have a thorough plan in place to anticipate a crisis and for everyone on the team to know how to respond. But what exactly does that entail? And will it ever be safe for you to turn off your ringer and just go to sleep at night?

Crisis management may be the topic du jour in the communications industry, but it still seems like with every new day, another big brand or Fortune 500 company is enmeshed in some kind of crisis. Take Deutsche Bank and the investigations, scandals and violations that seem to pile on with each passing day. Granted, the bank's PR is likely in over its head at this point, but its approach to mitigating the reputational impact keeps changing and that in itself seems to be contributing to the poor results.

Also struggling to manage major PR crises right now are Facebook, over its use of data; Google, for censoring employee pride protests; Nike, for issuing a controversial shoe design; and Phillip Morris, for using young influencers to pitch its smoking products.

These huge companies obviously have vast resources for public relations and undoubtedly have crisis management plans in place. So why do they keep screwing up?

It's possible that they simply are missing some of the crucial elements of an effective crisis plan.

The best crisis plans use first-rate risk management to prevent a crisis from happening or head it off early. A crisis may still occur, but an effective plan will address it quickly—ideally within minutes or hours—with a thoughtful response that preserves brand reputation, or even enhances it. Such was the case when Nike reacted to criticism of its athlete maternity leave policies, published on Mother's Day in the New York Times, by changing its policies immediately.

Make sure you are protecting your brand as effectively as possible by incorporating these six essential aspects of a top-notch crisis plan:

Anticipate current threats. Let's face it, many threats are predictable, though they differ from industry to industry. Outline the possible threats and how to react to them so you’re not starting from scratch when a crisis happens. Make sure you are monitoring social media so anything that puts the firm’s reputation at risk is identified as quickly as possible. Also use this to monitor your competitors; this may give you some clues as to the risks that affect your industry as a whole. Outsource this to a monitoring firm if you don’t have the internal bandwidth to do it.

Identify your team. This is not necessarily the most senior executives in the firm. Put together a cross-disciplinary team that includes top leaders, public relations staff, attorneys and human resources professionals. Define roles so everyone knows what they are supposed to do in a crisis. Practicing response with a mock crisis can also be valuable training for these key staff members. And don't forget to have someone assigned to social listening at all times. Again, this can be outsourced. But it's crucial in this 24/7 online world to have someone watching at all times for signs of trouble.

Train spokespeople. Determining who will speak for the firm is critical. It needs to be someone who can speak with authority and who has credibility with the media. It doesn’t have to be the CEO, but sometimes the public needs to hear from a top leader in the firm. Train the spokespeople by doing mock interviews and videotaping so they can see how they really perform. Also identify who can post to social media and how to quickly approve those posts so you can move as fast as the news media and social response

Draft holding statements. Once you’ve anticipated the threats, put together holding statements around each one that has the key messaging around that issue. You should have not only draft press releases but also draft social media posts that can quickly go up after a crisis breaks. They can be modified and updated during a crisis but you’ll have a starting point and this will increase your response speed with your messaging staying on-brand

Don’t forget internal audiences. Too many crisis plans only focus on the external audience; that’s a mistake. Your employees and their families and friends are key drivers of the company’s message, as well as key partners who shouldn’t learn what’s happening at their company via news organizations. Someone from HR or an internal communications staffer needs to be on the crisis team and ensure that internal and external messaging are consistent and coordinated. There are few things worse during a crisis than an employee doing a Facebook post with faulty information that gets picked up by media and distorts your overall messaging plan. Except, perhaps, when your employees publish a public memo bashing your communications.

Binders aren’t bad. While dusty binders are a bit of a cliché, what if your crisis includes disruptions to your servers or the cloud system where you have all these brilliant files? Put together a printed package that includes the holding statements and social posts, phone trees and other important documents. Have your key people keep two sets of printed materials—one at the office and one at home. Binders full of paper, plus a robust cloud-based site, will provide the redundancy needed so that everyone can respond quickly to any situation. 

George Haj is president of Haj Media, a strategic communications firm.