Crisis comms – how planning keeps business agile

Crisis comms – how planning keeps business agile

How can marketers prepare to be agile so they can meet customers ‘in the moment’ in periods of crisis, and to react with timely interventions and solutions?

For marketers in today’s dynamic multichannel environment, ‘agility’ is an increasingly important – if perhaps overused – concept. But it takes careful planning to be able to react to a crisis, when a swift response and flexibility are needed to tackle often-unanticipated issues.

Advance warning

While crises can come out of the blue and be difficult to foresee, social media monitoring tools can offer some advance warning of an incoming issue. It can keep track of when a marketer’s brand (or competitor) is mentioned, as well as news relevant to the business. Social monitoring can also help identify conversation peaks, negative comments and unusual activity surrounding the brand.

Possible issues can then be fed into a pre-prepared assessment and crisis process. That should involve creating a multi-functional team that has the capability to create a smart, agile response and to react in the right channels in the right way with the right tone. An organisation that has taken steps to break down silos between marketing and other functions will be in a better position to implement a more flexible and consistent response across the business.

Speed is key, so having processes and scenario planning in place will enable you to deliver an early response – even if it’s a holding one – and demonstrate to customers that you’re taking it seriously and engaging with them. It’s important to communicate with honesty, openness and humility that reflects and reinforces brand values, even if a mistake has been made.  

Planning in advance

You can’t brief your team to deal with every possible scenario, but preparation on how to react should include potential ‘danger areas’ where issues could arise that impact on customers and brand reputation. Some examples include: employee incidents, product or service failures, unforeseen ethical issues, and logistical breakdowns. This can at least allow you to fashion, in advance, the appropriate type of approach on a strategic level, allowing room to formulate a more agile tactical response.

Creating a ‘playbook’ for who should do what, when and how, is obviously part of that crisis management approach – ensuring that every member of the team is able to react quickly in the most effective way. The response should then be clearly communicated across the organisation so that all parts of the business are aligned at every customer touchpoint. This helps to generate consistent, constructive responses that demonstrate appreciation of concerns in a genuine way.

Crucial in a moment of crisis is that an organisation’s actions and communications are consistent with and underpinned strongly by brand values, maintains Chris West, founder of brand strategy consultancy Verbal Identity. “In a crisis, it becomes easy for brands to start sounding corporate and faceless as they go on the defensive. That’s when you start alienating your customers. With a brand voice, you need guidelines in place that are practical and easily referable… If you have an obvious brand voice that’s been robustly implemented, employees across all your channels stick to the tone that suits the brand best. And they can flex it for the right occasions.”

Sven Hughes, chief executive of marketing firm Verbalisation, agrees. “The crucial thing for any business is to be clear of its own ‘belief and behaviour’ and communicate this every day, in every way, using every available touchpoint. If the internal team and customers don’t know what the business actually stands for, then there’s going to be a problem in response to any external crisis.”

Business as usual

In a crisis, it is important that you are able to respond to individual customers’ concerns, apologise when necessary and acknowledge them in the moment. That may involve making contact with the potentially affected audience, who may be looking for information or individual responses. It’s important, then, to plan for this too – such as getting the IT or social resources in place, setting the tone on particular channels and addressing how the response can be scaled when required. This may involve sourcing third parties or specialists to supply that support in the event of a growing crisis, so do so in advance.

It’s crucial, too, that day-to-day business and communications do not suffer. To prevent this, put in place contingencies so all customers get an uninterrupted, normal experience. For example, make sure your organisation has the capacity to handle a sudden surge in social media activity and still maintain its ability to respond to customers’ general inquiries.

“The use of a social media management (SMM) platform is one way to be flexible and respond to situations, while meeting customers ‘in the moment’,” says Richard Wright, director EMEA, Lithium Technologies.

“Social technology won’t fix a crisis,” he says. “But, the right social technology can mitigate the effects: brand damage, customer churn, and needless expense.”

Bouncing back

Preparing robust processes to respond to a crisis can also provide a stable platform to react creatively after the initial impact of the crisis has been addressed. This is where organisational agility can make a real impact. This recovery process can offer the opportunity to enhance the brand by restating and reinforcing brand values and engaging with customers to acknowledge the lessons learned and intention to do better in future. And it can swing into action pretty much any time if the marketing team isn’t tied up purely in firefighting the original problem. That reaction, like the clever and humorous response from KFC to its recent distribution crisis, can create a positive engagement around the brand.

“With any relationship, it’s how you conduct yourself when things aren’t going so swimmingly that shows your true nature in the eyes of the other party,” says West from Verbal Identity. “And it’s no different with brands and consumers. If you use your response to showcase your commitment to your vision and your customer, then ultimately it will be that that sticks in their mind.”

Stay one step ahead in a volatile marketing environment by becoming a member of CIM for as little as £13 a month.

Phil Lattimore Journalist and Editor

CIM comment

'Agile' is an overused word in marketing today – but often a phrase not used enough in crisis comms. Being proactive and agile in times of crisis is an increasing imperative for brands with consumers not just watching mistakes but equally concerned with the way that organisations respond to a crisis. This means that it can be as much an opportunity for marketers as it is a challenge – some of the most successful advertising campaigns have been borne out of admitting mistakes.

If an organisation focuses on the customer, and the ability to respond to them in a relevant and timely way, most will understand.


James Delves, head of PR and engagement

Back to all