Crisis communication: the right way to deal with critical situations
No business is safeguarded from difficult situations. In one way or another, they will be confronted with problems at some point in time. Issues could arise internally because of incorrect decision making or externally and exert pressure on the business. To ensure that these issues do not lead to an economic catastrophe, an efficient and well-thought-out crisis communication strategy is important, among other measures. When the right strategy is in place, a company can master many hurdles and survive a crisis with minimal damage.
What is crisis communication?
When a business finds itself in a problematic situation - and even before a crisis emerges – the right communication strategy proves to be vital. Those who remain silent, have already lost. It’s important to make employees, CEOs, stakeholders, and even the public aware of the issues and the upcoming challenges to overcome them.
The term “crisis communication” describes the communication process of informing the public and/or relevant parties about a problematic situation. As such, crisis communication is part of crisis management and is geared toward minimising negative consequences that may arise.
To ensure that crisis communication can be effective, it needs to be well-prepared. If a proper strategy does not exist, the danger is that communication could be hampered. As part of the PR department’s duties, crisis communication aims to minimise or avoid damage to the reputation of a company. In a business context, crises are perceived as a danger to the existence of an entire business. In addition, massive damage to a business’s reputation or disruptions of an operating schedule can be evaluated as crises.
Different scenarios that require crisis communication:
- Employees striking
- Defective products and product withdrawals
- Board member scandals
- Environmental scandals
- A “social media nightmare”
Problems that require crisis communication are usually caused by mistakes made by a company or individual members of staff. It’s rare that a company ends up in a problematic situation through no fault of their own.
Crisis marketing - tips for gaining new customers, sending out marketing messages, uncovering new distribution channels and more in our Digital Guide article.
Why is crisis communication important?
One of the worst approaches a company can take during a crisis is to remain silent. If a business does not actively shape the discussion, the public can only ever talk about a company, but not with it. That’s why actively engaging in discussion is a must. In this case, the people responsible or the PR department will face various challenges. It’s not just about reacting in an adequate manner. There is also immense pressure to react swiftly because the longer one waits, the more out of hand a situation may spiral. If you react too late, any damage already caused may become difficult to reverse.
A crisis communication plan should form the basis of good crisis communication. When well-prepared, a company can communicate well even under time pressure.
Companies tend to gravitate toward hiding or playing down mistakes or problems. But outsiders are adept at noticing when difficulties arise. If a company does not provide satisfactory information, third parties may start to speculate. This can lead to rumours that may portray a company in a negative light. Businesses whose value depends on public opinion (for example, corporations) can suffer immensely from a lack of crisis communication.
Here’s how to do it: guidance for effective crisis communication
Organisations should develop a strategy on how to communicate during difficult times. Using a well-thought-out plan, they can react swiftly and professionally when issues arise. There are just a few things to bear in mind when it comes to communicating well:
- Keep calm: A crisis is a stressful time during which emotions tend to be heightened. Although problems should be communicated quickly, they shouldn’t be rushed, and actions should be well-considered.
- Call on your crisis squad: Decide who should get together during a difficult time to lead the communication strategy. The elected people should have the responsibility and authority to attack issues.
- One-voice strategy: It’s important that individual departments in a business do not share contradicting information with the public. That’s why a unified strategy should be agreed upon.
- Monitor: To be part of the public discussion, you need to monitor it. Review how media (and social media) report on your business.
- Be transparent: Transparency is the only way to counteract rumors. Make sure you stay informed on the individual steps you need to undertake to overcome these challenges.
- Keep up communication: A single press release is not enough. Prepare to issue statements long-term and regularly communicate with the public via different channels.
A company homepage is a useful tool for crisis communication to share a business’s perspective. If you do not already have a web presence, the website builder MyWebsite by IONOS enables you to design and publish a website in a matter of minutes.
E-Mail communication in times of crisis
Another example of crisis communication can be seen in how companies communicate via email in a crisis. Many companies rely on newsletter marketing as an important tool to get in touch with customers. This strategy has many advantages. Through the possibilities offered by modern email marketing software you can build up very personal communication style with your clients. This helps to limit bad outcomes in times of crisis However, in an unprecedentedly exceptional situation such as the COVD-19 pandemic, which began to hit economies hard in March 2020, many companies panicked and forgot about the use of good newsletter communication. Some brands bombard their customers with one e-mail after another.
The increase in communication is not surprising – or at least the desire to do so is not. Some companies needed to inform their customers very quickly, about unusual events, delivery issues, limited services, and so on. The problem, however, is that if newsletters are overused, the external communication of many companies is at risk - and this must not happen, especially in times of crisis. Sending newsletter after newsletter puts the overall effectiveness of this marketing strategy at risk.
In an international crisis such as the Coronavirus pandemic, it is therefore more important than ever to consider how necessary each newsletter or form of communication is, and to show consideration. Other companies may have more information that needs to arrive quickly. Finding the right measure is therefore useful in crisis situations for several reasons. You do not put an unnecessary burden on the network, and you don’t overload your customers with lots of information at once.
Tips for crisis communication in newsletters
- Communicate informatively: Do not use a crisis (whether international or limited to your company) primarily to conduct a marketing campaign. Limit your communication to the facts and avoid advertising.
- Restrict the number of recipients: Do not blast your entire address book with the same message. Instead, use targeted E-mailing to achieve the highest possible engagement rate.
- Be sensitive to tone: Stay objective in your e-mails and avoid alarming terms. This makes your communication look more professional. In your Newsletter subject in particular, you should avoid scare-mongering language, so that your messages don't end up unread or in spam folders.
You can also take steps on a technical level to ensure that your e-mails reach their recipients. Major crises are used by cybercriminals in phishing attacks. To ensure that your emails are not suspected of having criminal intent, you should use SPF, DKIM and DMARC. With these techniques, you’ll authenticate yourself as a trusted sender and avoid ending up in the dreaded spam folder.
Effective crisis communication: three examples
Often, companies attract attention because they communicate badly or not at all during crises which can worsen the situation. However, there are plenty of examples of effective crisis communication. The following cases show how to turn a negative situation around.
Soft drinks maker Pepsi has faced up to a few different crises in its long history - and its crisis communication hasn’t always been positive. In 1993, however, the company managed to turn a near-disastrous situation into a boon to its image. Multiple people claimed that they had found dangerous objects such as needles inside Pepsi cans.
As a reaction, Pepsi launched videos depicting its production process. This informed the public that technically it wasn’t even possible that objects could get into the cans. Furthermore, the company presented surveillance footage from a supermarket showing how a woman had inserted a needle into a Pepsi can – which was out of the company’s control.
Pepsi mastered the crisis well by attacking the issue from multiple aspects. For one, Pepsi remained calm and collected. First, it determined internally whether the situation could be Pepsi’s fault. Subsequently, the company relied on increased communication to dispel consumer fears. Lastly, Pepsi remained transparent by providing an insight into its manufacturing process thus avoiding rumours.
Coffee chain Starbucks acknowledged racism issues among its staff after the circulation of an online video. In one of its US branches, employees had called the police because of two dark-skinned customers who hadn’t ordered anything for a while because they were waiting for a friend. The public agreed: this wouldn’t have happened to a light-skinned guest.
Starbucks launched a large anti-racism campaign in the wake of the scandal. Instead of blaming the relevant employees, the company focused on a larger internal issue. For one day, the company closed all its branches to provide training to combat racial prejudice. Costing the company more than $10 million, the measure gained international attention and improved its image again.
Snapchat is a relatively young technology company that has already dealt with multiple problems. When in 2014 cyber criminals gained access to the CEO’s emails containing sensitive information, the company faced up to the issue. In reaction, its CEO drafted a personal correspondence to his employees and subsequently released the email on Twitter. His message underlined his humanity, creating a tighter bond with staff and users of the app.
This form of crisis communication got the company through a difficult time while improving the CEO’s image.