5 Tips for Effective Crisis Communications

Eleana Collins and Brandon Chiat

The last month has seen its fair share of public relations gaffes. Whether it was Pepsi pulling an ad perceived to trivialize Black Lives Matter, United Airlines forcibly dragging a passenger off an overbooked flight, and the newly infamous Fyre Fest felt the heat.

Fear “feeds the fire” during a crisis – so address the situation head-on. If you’re a brand experiencing a communications challenge, the best thing you can do is to take control of the conversation by:

  • Providing clear, consistent, and ongoing messaging
  • Informing customers of how they’ll be impacted

Here are five crisis communication tips your brand can use should you find yourself in the middle of a PR-nightmare:

  1. Southwest handled this potential crisis well.

    React quickly, not rashly. Waiting to respond is never a clever idea. Your goal should be to respond in hours or even minutes – not in days or weeks. Brands who stay silent face backlash which can make a bad situation even worse. Sure, your team is probably scrambling to gather your collective thoughts, but it’s important to address the situation as soon as possible. Don’t get defensive when posting your initial response – it’s critically important to remain neutral while gathering the necessary information. Be as positive as possible while addressing the concerns of your customers. Check out how Southwest Airlines handled an emergency on one of their flights: they used social media to get out in front of the situation and quickly address customer concerns. Remember, you can always follow up with a longer, more thoughtful response in the days and weeks to come, but your immediate priority is to show people you’re on top of the situation.

  2. Actions speak louder than words. When you do respond to the angry mob of your disgruntled customers, demonstrate how you’re going to stop this bad situation from happening again. Describe a new process you’ll implement or announce a change to a problematic policy. A detailed announcement like this can come further down the road following internal discussions, but customers need to see actionable steps. Whatever action you take, be sure it’s appropriate and proportionate; when United Airlines forcibly removed David Dao from an overbooked flight, simply paying for his future travel would not have been enough. United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz understood this point when he sent an email to all United customers entitled (appropriately enough) “Actions Speak Louder than Words.” In the email, Munoz detailed specific actions the company implemented to prevent the situation from recurring; these included a policy change that prevents flight attendants from removing passengers and increasing incentives of up to $10,000 for customers who voluntarily remove themselves from overbooked flights.
  3. Honesty (and transparency) is always the best policy. In their response, brands shouldn’t take a defensive position but don’t need to apologize immediately either. However, if your company is at fault, it is important to be honest – you need to own up to the mistake. Customers are adept at smelling a company’s… fresh fertilizer. In response, brands should always be transparent if for no other reason than the internet will always uncover the truth. Getting out in front of the problem and taking responsibility (if appropriate) will help humanize your brand during the crisis. Owning up to the mistake gives you the chance to win customers back, whereas continuing to deny wrongdoing (if it’s your fault) will only alienate customers and dig you into a deeper hole.
  4. Every corporate communication is an opportunity to reinforce your brand. More often than not, crises happen without any fault of the company. Your team can’t please everyone and sticking by your brand values is a sure-fire way to weather any bad publicity. A few years ago, General Mills ran an ad for Cheerios that featured an interracial family enjoying the heart-healthy cereal. According to NPR, the official YouTube video for the ad was inundated with so many ugly comments that General Mills pulled the TV spot from the site because they decided the reaction was no longer family friendly. The company thought they could end the bad press by pulling the ad in the face of public outcry. But reacting due to public pressure is usually not the best decision because it only drives more attention to a tough situation. Essentially, General Mills took heat for running an ad that did align with their brand identity and represented their values, but the company looked even worse when they pulled the ad to appease a vocal minority. If General Mills stayed true to their values they would never have removed the adorable ad in the first place, saving them from compounding a PR mistake. Ultimately, the firm regrouped, concluded that the spot represented their brand well, and continued not only running the ad, but releasing similar content as well.
  5. MOVE ON. Just like a bad high-school break-up, there’s only one thing left for a brand to do after a communications crisis: leave it in the past. Once you’ve addressed the situation and issued a plan of action for remedying any problems, you need to stop talking. Social media is a double-edged sword: it allows brands to directly reach their customers but it also means those very same customers can continue to take your company to task. Your best option here is to control the conversation by taking it offline. Once your company issues its final statement on the matter, respond to any ensuing social media comments like this: “We understand your concerns and thank you for the feedback. We’d love to talk to you about it further by phone or email,” and provide contact information.

Hopefully, your pristine brand will never be tarnished by a PR crisis. However, should you find yourself in the same boat as Pepsi, United, or Fyre Festival, give us a call: Warschawski has handled all shapes and sizes of crisis communications and will work strategically, holistically, and expeditiously to solve your problem.