When brand PR teams become emergency responders

It’s both a benefit and a curse that content is king in the digital age. Good content has the potential to go viral, giving a brand a great opportunity to make an impact for little investment, but the flipside is also true.

With a smartphone in every pocket, brands are now facing an environment where someone with 10 followers can now reach millions and jeopardize the reputation of a business overnight.

We can all rattle off fresh examples of ways brands have been tested and failed in the digital age. It usually goes like this: A brand makes a mistake, that mistake is recorded, and before you know it, it’s amplified to a worldwide audience. 

While it can be difficult to prevent an unfortunate incident from becoming documented for millions to see, most brands can prepare and respond in a way that upholds integrity and reaffirms public trust.

Know vulnerabilities and create a game plan

Long before a crisis ever knocks on the door, it’s an important exercise to identify those areas that pose the biggest threat to the brand. These will be unique to each brand, and it’s worth going through the exercise to know what those areas are so that you can address them with management and create a tailored plan to respond. The plan should include messages for target audiences, distribution channels and execution steps.

Ideally this exercise has the added benefit of allowing the business to address the issue and avoid it from ever coming to fruition.

Create a clear communications structure

Most brands know the importance of giving the communication team a seat at the leadership table. This is because the role of the communicator demands it and is perhaps most evident during an incident.

In fact, the USC Center for Public Relations’ 2018 Global Communications Report showed that 51 percent of in-house Communication leaders reported directly to the CEO. In times of crisis, communications needs to move quickly and cannot afford to be bogged down in an onerous chain of command.

Brands cannot wait hours to have a statement approved by a litany of executives. To avoid delays, brands should have a clear line of communication to the crucial “deciders,” and this process should be built into the communications strategy.

Messages should be authentic 

Most viral videos have an authentic voice. It’s typically evident how the brand messed up. In the same vein, brands should feel compelled to own up to their mistakes and say so.

This is not the time for flowery, coy or purposely vague language. These types of statements reek of inauthenticity and do little to advance the brand past the incident or build trust. Especially in a world where trust in corporations is declining, honest, authentic communication is table stakes.

Watch and respond

After initial statements and messages are released, the job is not finished. This is when the monitoring kicks into high gear, which will inform the next steps for the brand.

Sophisticated brands have a robust media-monitoring program in place, able to identify trends, sentiment and the ability to understand when something is a blip or a major cause for concern.

A viral incident is never ideal but it can present an opportunity for companies to seize the moment. If handled properly, brands can weather the storm, walk away building trust and with the brand stronger than before.