Tag Archive for: crisis communications

My family and I have come to love Pizza CS (Come Sempre), http://pizzacs.com/  a new Neapolitan-style pizza joint in our neighborhood started by a couple of guys who love great ingredients and honor the art of creating a truly Italian crust.  But what I take away from Pizza CS, besides a great food experience, is that a great brand is always about two things: delivering what you promise, and how your people communicate.  This place has both, and that’s why we keep coming back.

When a “brand promise” is broken, it is often because an employee doesn’t realize that everything they do communicates your brand.  Or doesn’t. When my husband was on a job search last year, I can’t count the number of institutions that created a bad name for themselves because of how the point person on the search conducted him or herself. Everything they said was a poor reflection on the brand. By contrast, several institutions shined through that process, and presented a unified “face” to their brand for prospective employees and customers alike.

So, what’s the best way to pre-empt the potential brand threat that is your own work force?

  1. Listening. The first tool is teaching good listening skills. Any employee who speaks to clients, staff or prospects in either category—from your receptionist to your HR department—should have training in good listening skills. Learning how to repeat back what the concern is (“I hear you saying you did not receive the package your ordered on time”) is the first step to solving the problem and defending your brand. This is more important than ever in a world where any disgruntled person can start a blog about how they have been wronged (the famous Jeff Jarvis “Dell sucks” blog post as case in point).
  2. Crisis Planning. Another key component to workforce training in a 24/7 media world is crisis response.  That doesn’t mean that every employee is part of your crisis response team. However, every employee should know How to Recognize a problem that has reached crisis level, and What to Do Next when that happens. I often see organizations in melt-down when a crisis occurs because the problem was still being dealt with at a low level, with the back and forth spilling onto Facebook and websites, when it should have been pushed way up the management chain immediately for a more unified and brand-focused response.

You need to be engaged with critics (and lovers) of your brand, at all levels of your organization.  Because, in this world of 24 hour news cycles, social networks and the blogosphere, one unhappy person can be a very powerful voice. And so can one very happy customer who dealt with a well-trained employee.

Amy DeLouise offers staff development workshops in branding and social media.

With Hurricane Irene bearing down on us and news stations blaring 24/7 about the states of emergency being declared all around us, my husband and I dutifully prepared. Battery backup for the sump pump-check. Backup pump-check. Sandbags around the pump hole-check. Bottled water-check. Canned food-check. Flashlights-check. Candles-check. Then we headed to the liquor store to stock up for a hurricane dinner party (hey, we live inland, we had to have some fun).

As it turned out, Irene was a flop–at least in our area. But the preparations and evacuations were reminders of the Katrina legacy.  Understandably, no one wanted to repeat those horrific scenes of people who could not be rescued for days. But how would people now respond to what now appeared to be an overblown response?

In some ways, the situation was like a real life drill, so we could see how things worked.  Did our governance structures allow for quick response? Did our communications pathways let us reach affected stakeholders quickly? I was interested to watch each mayor, governor and federal agency leader acting out their own crisis response plan.   Which made me think of the top four things organization can do to be prepared for communicating in a crisis:

1. Build multiple pathways to your customers. Be able to reach them via text, phone, cellphone or email. But boots on the ground may be necessary as well. Newark New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker actually knocked on doors to get people to evacuate. (I noticed he also responded directly to a constituent on Twitter who was worried about his mother’s loss of power and offered to go check on her.) Reinforce the pathways to vital communications by not overwhelming them with junk, or they won’t respond when you need them to. In my area, PEPCO left voicemail for customers warning them about possible power outages. This was useful. But part of the message suggested checking the PEPCO website for updates. Oops.

2. Develop a quick-response team. This may not just be top organizational leadership. It may include others who can connect to different parts of your staff or customer base.  Prepare the team on how to respond to media inquiries.  Ultimately you may bring on a crisis PR group to help, but in the initial hours your own team will need to handle the job.  One person should be the “face” of the organization if you must go on television. This was one of the big missteps during the BP oil spill crisis. For days and days, there were multiple people at the microphone, resulting in coverage that said  “who’s in charge here, anyway?”

3. People come first. Not your company/entity.  That means being as honest as possible in responses, as timely as possible, and as transparent as possible about your process for fixing the problem.  The gold standard of crisis response remains the Tylenol tampering scare of 1982. The fact that they responded quickly, put safety first, and changed their packaging were both smart moves for the brand and for the customers.

4. Maintain post-crisis communications. Tell the story of what happened, what you did about it, what you could have done better, and what worked. Giving your narrative and keeping the communications lines open after a crisis builds trust for future response. This may be some of the hardest work ahead for the folks responding to Irene. Mayor Bloomberg will have a delicate messaging job to do in the coming hours and days to ensure New Yorkers don’t roll their eyes the next time he or a future Mayor orders an evacuation. It may not matter today, but it could save future lives if he does it right.

Periodically, I offer guest posts by colleagues.  Here’s one on crisis communications by Evan Nierman, founder of Red Banyan Group, a public relations and crisis management firm that provides integrated strategic communications counsel to organizations and individuals across a variety of industries.

The famous motto of the Boy Scouts is “be prepared.”  It’s good advice for everyone, but especially for companies looking to avoid dealing with a crisis that could damage their reputation and impact the bottom line.

In this day and age, thanks in part to a 24-hour news cycle and the way social media enables stories (especially negative ones) to spread like wildfire, it is more important than ever that organizations be prepared to face the inevitable crisis which could be just around the corner.  There is no reason to wait for a full-blown crisis to erupt–by the time trouble strikes it is almost too late.

Clearly, some crises are impossible to forecast.  I can recall one past client where the company’s senior executives were blindsided by very naughty personal behavior by the CEO which became instantly public thanks to a spurned wife who was tired of his philandering and drug abuse.  In that case, the company was forced to undertake a strategy emphasizing how capable senior managers would shoulder the workload while the CEO was away addressing his personal issues, and assuring shareholders that the impact on the company would be minimal.

Most companies can predict with some degree of accuracy what kind of challenges they might face in the future.  Government agencies charged with oversight will inevitably make a mistake somewhere along the line, and most nonprofit organizations will at some point face heavy scrutiny and perhaps strident criticism for how they spend their budgets.

Having a good crisis communications plan in place means that the organization can invest time during a calm period where cooler heads prevail to make well-reasoned, strategic decisions without the intense pressure and time constraints for decision-making that are brought on by a crisis.

Who Should Review Your Crisis PR Plan?

  • The person who oversees communications for the organization
  • The organization’s top executive
  • Legal counsel
  • Someone outside the organization with an expertise in crisis PR

For those companies who have not yet developed a crisis plan, having one in place is money well-spent.  It can help provide peace of mind to the organization while eliminating the ramp-up time required by crisis PR experts brought in to fight the fire once it is underway.

Companies which already have a plan in place should update it periodically and may want to have it reviewed by experts in order to ensure that it’s as effective and comprehensive as possible.  At the end of the day, a crisis communications plan is like a strong insurance policy: you never want to be without it when the day comes that you need it. The bottom line: be prepared.

–Evan Nierman

According to SearchEngineLand.com CEO Danny Sullivan,  BP’s latest PR tactic was to purchase all the Google links for any search that includes the words “oil spill” or “BP” or “gulf oil,” among other keywords. Type in any of these and the top result you see is BP’s special Gulf of Mexico Response website.  Interesting brand-in-crisis move.

Part of the reason BP did this was to control the message. Controlling the Message is of course Rule #2 of Crisis Communications 101.  (Rule #1 is Full and Immediate Transparency/Disclosure.  BP hasn’t quite gotten that one down, no doubt because it is in conflict with all of the rules of Avoiding Lawsuits 101).  BP was smart to try the Google search word approach since they got major blowback from the TV ads they purchased, which featured their lambasted CEO touting all the great work BP was doing on the cleanup.   They really didn’t have many options for getting out their message, since BP was not well established in social media prior to the crisis and wasn’t positioned to respond (take note, SM slackers!), they had to go this route.

The ultimate question is:  is it working? Since the new top-of-the-Google-charts BP link clearly says “Sponsored Link,” people know it’s not a clean search result. Or do they? And even so, are they tempted to click on their site and scan it? It would be interesting to learn if the company is getting increased hits and any positive spin from that. BP stock prices just dropped another 4%, so that may be one indicator this plan isn’t working.

Red Berries - IMG_4552 sSeptember is coming and it’s time to dust off those emergency plans.  Schools have just mailed out their reminders of what to do during “code red.”  But does your organization have a brand emergency plan? Years of good work with customers and your community can be eclipsed very quickly by a few misspoken words by a board member, or a complaint floating around in social media.

Why Plan?

The simple answer is that you’ve spent years, perhaps decades or even centuries, building up your brand. And yet in an instant it can be destroyed. So when complicated issues arise, such as an unexpected firing, natural or man-made disasters, public health concerns, etc., it’s important to have a plan for how you will brief all staff, board members and volunteers on how to handle potential questions from customers, supporters, the community and the press. That might just mean responding with a very brief factual answer and then providing contact information to the questioner so they can refer additional questions to the communications liaison, CEO’s office, or the Chair of the Board.

What’s in the Plan?

It’s not a question of hiding information, but rather of giving it out in a way that is unified and easy to understand. Most importantly, the way information is communicated, as well as the content of that information, contributes to how your brand is perceived. “No comment” is a deadly answer. And blogs and the 24-hour news cycle can make other voices louder than perhaps their numbers truly reflect. Your Brand Emergency Communications Plan should include how to respond to:

-traditional print media

-cable news and radio


You should also be able to proactively post information to your:


-Twitter account

-Facebook or MySpace pages

And be prepared to send email announcements or texts to update your community of supporters.

Who Executes the Plan?

The days of the communications office controlling the message are over. The message is already out there, especially if it involves some catastrophe related to your brand. So you need to have well-briefed team to help you engage in the conversation and include your information and perspective. For a nonprofit, this team can include not just executive level and communications staff, but also board leadership and key volunteers. In for-profit organizations, important customers may be recruited to assist in disseminating the message. Government agencies need to engage their counterparts in the private sector, depending on the issue at hand, to ensure effective response to an emergency.

So just like your home or school, this fall your place of business should practice its emergency communications procedures on a regular basis, so that when the time comes, you are able to quickly implement your plan.

Have a recent brand crisis that put your plan into action? Please share!