How can companies communicate in a crisis?
Here are some tips!


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In 2017, United Airline’s parent company United Continental Holdings lost nearly $1 billion in market value. The reason: a video that went viral on social media. The video showed a United Airlines passenger being dragged down the aisle by airport security staff after he refused to give up his seat. The incident, and how the airline dealt with it in its belated PR response, severely exposed the airline’s ability to deal with a media crisis.

The 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, considered to be the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, is another example of how inept crisis communication can lead to catastrophic effects. The incident demonstrated the indifference shown by BP to the public furore and highlighted the oil major’s failure to prepare a crisis communication plan. The oil spill cost BP a total of $62 billion.

Be prepared

Crises can happen anytime; the how, what, where and why will always be unpredictable. What is predictable is that a crisis, especially one involving human life, property or the environment, can have a potentially disastrous impact on the bottom line and the brand image. It’s imperative to have a well-designed mechanism in place, to offer a speedy response and minimize delays in putting out the company line.

Here are a few recommendations on how to handle crisis communication.

  •  Anticipate crisis situations: Organizations often fail to formulate crisis communication plans and this can be a mistake. The case of BP and United is a lesson in not undervaluing the importance of effective and responsive communication. While it’s near impossible to anticipate a crisis, brainstorming potential scenarios and mapping out appropriate responses, can equip organizations to better handle crisis situations when they occur. For instance, preparing databases of stakeholders to be informed, such as customers, regulators, employees and families, and even communities of people living near a plant or facility.
  •  Build a crisis team: A properly trained crisis team should drive the crisis communication plan during an emergency. This will enable a coherent and unified response. This includes allotting media responsibility to a few spokespersons, and training them in handling queries.

    Another step is to identify and contact crisis communication experts who have experience in navigating through a crisis. These experts can help limit the risk from communication failures.

    The 2015 Volkswagen emissions scandal highlights how an incoherent and disjointed communication plan can prove costly. When the auto major was accused of manipulating its engine controls to pass laboratory emissions tests by the Environmental Protection Agency, the company’s response was seen as inconsistent and contradictory.
  •  Keep a dark site ready: The normal website with happy smiling faces may not be appropriate in times of crisis. A dark website can be designed and kept ready; it can be made live very quickly and helps show a quick response from the organization. It provides an official site where company responses are available for the media.
  •  Respond quickly: Following the rise of digital and social media, customers expect a quick response to any issues that arise. Failure to respond quickly can often encourage the public to conclude the culpability of the brand. For instance, in 1982 when Tylenol faced a crisis following the death of seven people in Chicago after consuming over-the-counter extra strength Tylenol capsules, parent brand Johnson & Johnson was faced with an unprecedented situation. The company had to take a tough decision: either risk its reputation and suffer financial loss by recalling the product or defend its reputation by claiming it to be tampering.

    The company decided to protect consumers and immediately recalled 31 million bottles of the product which cost the company $100 million. The initiative shown by the company to immediately recall products, issue warnings, and establish hotlines for customers added to the company’s brand image.
  •  Establish real-time monitoring: In a highly connected digital world, the importance of social media can never be overlooked. Monitoring media channels can alert organizations to an issue brewing in advance and respond in real time. Case in point -- Emirates airline’s rapid response to the crash landing of flight EK521 at Dubai airport in August 2016. When negative posts began to emerge on social media in India about the lack of a local hotline for relatives of passengers on board, the airline quickly responded and publish a telephone hotline which helped diffuse the situation.
  •  Schedule a post-mortem: A true crisis is the best opportunity to test the efficacy of a crisis communications plan. A critical examination of a crisis situation can help organization learn from the successes as well as the mistakes.

Crises can be disruptive and unpredictable; being prepared for crisis can help businesses respond effectively and limit the fallout.

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