A deliberate combination of planning and sincere human empathy are what will ensure brands can weather the digital storms of modern crisis management, writes Joanna Oosthuizen Chief Operating Officer at Ogilvy South Africa. 

The digital crisis is the fundamental new normal for brands and organisations. Never before have those of us who are responsible for managing brand safety and reputation been faced with the level of nuance and issues in how we engage with customers, staff and stakeholders.

The scale and pace of a growing crisis is exponential. The accelerated pace of our increasingly mediated society – where news and opinions go viral at the touch of a screen – has fundamentally altered the level of detail needed in planning issues and crisis protocols, as well as a more considered way of work when these move into action. Increasingly it is not just what we say, but how we say it that matters most.

It goes without saying that this requires significant planning and organisational alignment at the most senior levels of the organisation.

Crisis management is so fundamentally crucial to the health and survival of a brand, that it must fall squarely into the responsibility of an organisation’s top management, it is after all a board level mandate in chapter 8 of the King IV Codes of Corporate Governance.

This more comprehensive (and likely less reactive approach) to planning requires not just the eternal hunt for a silver bullet 140 character tweet as the solve, but also a deep and far reaching review of processes, policies and operational requirements in order to be effective. Top of this is how the organisation moves away from the traditional “we at company X …” corporate response towards a culturally relevant and engaging tone that speaks to people as if they are people.  

Agencies have an equal role to play. Not as suppliers but as a rational independent voice contributing to a small group of empowered leaders working together to make the right judgement calls. In a digital crisis, a crisis management committee brings an almost disastrous dynamic and should be avoided.

Crisis management is well-oiled partnership. The right agency does not believe in spin (spin is a fancy word for lie), has a clear moral foundation and does not and will not compromise on the truth. The right partner brings a balance of experience across industries and scenarios.

With social-media having accelerated the pace at which any crisis unfolds, having skilled professionals on the case becomes more important than ever. When a PR disaster can blow up globally within hours, crisis communications is no time for working things out as you go along.

As a global communications agency, we see a new context of global crisis communications, with six clear trends emerging.

1- Prepare for the worst

Strategies for dealing with a crisis should be in place long before that first ominous social media post.

This requires advance thinking to identify potential crises, and the investment in developing the effective approach for dealing with them. Other brands will have faced crisis situations in the past. Learn from them.

It’s no use to observe another company’s brand immolation and to thank your lucky stars it’s not your problem. There is a lesson in every crisis, whether it’s yours or someone else’s. What would you do if that was your company’s food-poisoning crisis? How would you handle that web video of an in-store altercation? That ridiculous tweet?

Anticipate possible crisis situations and develop strategies for dealing with them. That way, you’re not running around formulating a position when you should be responding. By then it’s too late.

2- Prepare your responses

Social media trends take shape rapidly. Your crisis will not so much develop as appear fully formed on your timeline, in all its gory detail. Having anticipated the problem, prepare a suite of responses. This kind of content helps to clarify for agencies and clients where they stand on issues. It can be kept ready for use if required, ensuring you’re helping to shape the narrative.

Prepare for questions that you will be asked (including the ones you don’t want to be asked) and formulate responses. All of this will help to focus your own mind, so no one is flailing when put on the spot. Make sure you understand the gravity of the crisis, and you can articulate your position, and how you plan to fix things.

Having stated your position, you are able adjust to the conversation as it develops in the right tone and with the right content.

3- Know more than the next guy

Practise a strategy of active listening across all channels. Effective crisis agencies have strategic analysis tools to identify trends and attitudes affecting their clients. They are able to provide social and economic analysis that helps contextualise issues,

This not only helps brands anticipate issues, but also identifies what exactly the issue is. A full understanding of issues and their cultural relevance helps to differentiate a cause from a symptom.

Knowledge is power. Accurate analysis helps you manage your crisis effectively and to leaven your response with insightful information that helps the audience understand the situation.

Key to knowing the right information is a clear, fact based and aligned timeline that forms the basis for everything.

4 -Get the executive on board

Effective responsiveness requires accessibility and commitment from the most senior management. Crisis management is not something to be delegated. Key to this is a small senior and empowered team When a crisis hits, company leaders need to show how seriously they take the situation by stepping in personally and actively. They also need to dedicate the right operational resources support with information in helping manage the situation – on both the side of the agency and the client.

5- Stay humble

Humility, with a good dose of honesty, will also get you through a crisis. Often a reputation-management storm stems from an arrogant or dismissive tone in brand communications as much as the initial complaint. Don’t allow yourself to be in a position where you communications becomes a secondary firestorm.

Customer feedback, whether positive or critical, is precious, and should be accepted graciously and then put to use to improve service, quality and brand.

6 -Stay human

Basic human values should be your guiding light. Corporate actions that are within the letter of the law can still raise public outrage when they come across as disconnected, heartless or unsympathetic. These crises stem more from public perceptions than whether an organisation’s actions are legal. Sometimes the right thing to do is to do the right thing.

This is where cultural relevance is so important. Your brand’s values must be in step with those of the society you operate in. In any crises you encounter, follow your instincts as a human being. What is fair? What is the caring way to respond? Fulfilling human needs is your brand’s motivation, and that should come through in your messaging.   

Finally, to manage a crisis effectively, communications professionals must be prepared to speak truth to power, remembering that you are unlikely to be able to communicate yourself out of a reputation you behaved yourself into.

Agencies and communications executives must initiate the hard conversations that ensure brands continue to matter to their audience.  If you matter to people and you approach a crisis with humility, preparedness and clarity of purpose, there is no reason your brand cannot emerge stronger than you were before.

Embrace the digital era – even when the times are tough.