Mastering Crisis Communications: Why Pre-Emptive Analysis Matters Most
May 13, 2021
Company (and personal brand) crises are on the rise, but waiting until one happens is not an optimal path.

Instead, companies should be proactive and take key steps to help mitigate risk. Two forward-thinking leaders in strategic communications, Naomi Seligman founder of Tower26 and Marni Tomljanovic of Good Grit, discuss how to prepare for the worst before it happens.

The frequency of high-profile corporate crises is higher than ever. They rose 80% for corporations in a year, and that was pre COVID. The landscape has shifted incredibly, we're facing crises and challenges that we'd never imagined. Knowing that your brand's reputation is also 20% of your market capitalization means your reputation, corporate citizenship and your legacy building are tied to the bottom line. Brands should be thinking about, preparing for and building out in order to deal with crisis communications and issues management but what's equally important, is the “fabric” of your company, or even your own personal brand, which is your corporate citizenship, your social impact program, state programming and your legacy building.

Let's imagine that your company is hit by a major crisis, and you received thousands of negative comments on social and customers are canceling orders. All the verifiable facts at this point are few and far between and it seems like every single person has found every past error that your company may have ever made. In the middle of all this chaos, what do you do? Where do you even start? Do you hold a press conference? Do you admit wrongdoing? Remember, you don't have all the facts and information at this time. You promised to make everything right and to do that right away. Where's the first place to start in this process?

From a communication standpoint, once you are exposed and your reputation is threatened, we know that that will constrict your ability to conduct business. These crises can take on so many forms - it's anything from a recall to corruption to a natural man made disaster. Although some of these are beyond a company's control, a lot of them we can think about, and know - they're foreseen. So it needs a coordinated approach to issues management.

Know Your Vulnerabilities Ahead of Time: Create a Risk Analysis Framework or SWOT

How do you get to a framework that's going to allow you to feel comfortable when the situation arises?

The first step we often take is to issue a risk identification audit as part of a SWOT analysis.

A SWOT analysis looks at the Strengths and Weaknesses, both of which are internal to the company, and then the Opportunities and Threats, which are external to the company. That process allows you and your executive team to think from a broader perspective what could possibly happen. What are some of those risks? And what can we start thinking about in our strengths that we can leverage in order to identify and address those risks.

By developing this inventory of vulnerabilities, you begin to get ahead of the issues that arise. For each threat, we have to determine what the trigger may be, and how a hypothetical scenario for a crisis might unfold, based on past patterns, or previous cases. This allows you to critically examine areas of weaknesses across the organization, and consider what actions could offset them. So this is the first step. If we have this SWOT analysis, we are able to catalog our risks.

  • Learn Your Internal Vulnerabilities: Our job is to think through every scenario, to understand what's around the corner and anticipate, and a big part of that is listening and learning. It's important to conduct this exercise both inside the company and outside with external and internal stakeholders and sources. So it's sitting down with senior management, and conducting interviews and understanding, what are the vulnerabilities? What are the pain points?
  • As Well As Your Outside Vulnerabilities: Outside of the company, what can you learn from other crises in similar industries? What is the current media landscape, and who has said anything publicly in the past? What's happening on the regulatory and legislative fronts? We also look at industry reports and polls and surveys to paint a bigger picture and bring potential threats to the surface. Last, but certainly not least, is to monitor social channels for mentions of your brand, or competitors and products. An important part of this process is social listening. That’s the proactive side. Build a reservoir of goodwill by showing your efforts, and when you goof up, people will cut you some slack.

Next Create A Plan:

What's in a plan? It includes identifying and minimizing vulnerabilities, key audience analysis, and development of a responsive messaging platform. We create standard responses to anticipated questions, scenario planning and implications, and crisis process logistics. The plan also addresses worst case scenario questions which may be uncomfortable, but are necessary. For example, do you have a succession plan in case some of your critical mission leaders have to step down? Who is Plan B? Or how do we explain why this person had to step down. It may not be comfortable to talk about leaders' vulnerabilities, but it is really important if we want to have as successful a transition through crisis as possible.

Assign Accountability: You have to be really clear on what your crisis protocol is. There are people who set up “war rooms” with everybody together thinking through strategies, and with immediate access to decision makers. Does everyone understand who holds the responsibility for leading the organizations through these times? How do you alert people who need to get the information? In what order of priority?

A critical question is also, are the people we're going to assign these different responsibilities properly trained for what we're going to have them do in a moment of crisis? Are they already wearing a ton of hats? These aren't decisions that can be made in the moment. You need these contingency plans.

Making sure you've have asked the right people in advance and know that they want. Being disciplined and prepared prevents unforced errors.

Remember The Importance of Corporate Citizenship Your reputation, corporate citizenship, and legacy building are tied to the bottom line. Crises change how people think about social impact programming, legacy building and citizenship. Think about this not as an extra but an essential cost of doing business - a strategy and long term process. Match your actions to your words. What do you want to be known for? What do you want to be known for that matters to you, your customers, and your employees. Customers are more inclined to buy from brands that are aligned with their values.

A reputation is an asset that can't be quickly managed. It's a long term process. It involves plans, programs, measuring, monitoring and managing, and the key term is managing. We need to manage the good, we need to prepare for the bad.

Find Naomi Seligman and Marni Tomljanovic on LinkedIn.



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