What’s that saying: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? In our world of instant, always-on media, an ounce of prevention is worth far, far more. Something that may have caused little more than an insider stir in the past is at high risk these days of spillover into the court of public opinion. And though the social media buzz may be brief, it can be inordinately damaging.

In March, KFC was prompted to halt a UK ad featuring its “finger-lickin’ good” tagline after facing backlash for irresponsible behavior in the face of the pandemic. The brand’s response was as quick as the criticism and the tagline freeze continues, but the incident is a good reminder that in exceptional circumstances brands need to be exceptionally self-aware.

It’s also a good rule of thumb in everyday, unexceptional circumstances. There are few things worse for a marketing or PR professional than receiving a notification with some variation of the message, “We have a problem.” And though you can’t anticipate every threat that may come your way, there are things you can do to mitigate the impact of an unflattering spotlight on your organization.

Planning for the unexpected

It’s important when you’re managing your brand’s identity to get to know the organization inside and out. Where have there been missteps in the past? What are some positions, products or affiliations–past, present or pending–that might be deemed controversial? How are you perceived online?

In an ideal world, this information, along with your social media monitoring, would comprise a living document–a virtual brand binder as it were–giving the reference points and temperature checks you might need in the event of an emergency. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world and every brand’s resources and capabilities are different. 

In addition, you can’t know the in’s and out’s of employee, partner or stakeholder behavior. But you can address some of the questions raised above, conducting whatever level of due diligence is possible so you can construct “what if” scenarios and standard responses as a jumping-off point should something big arise.

Once you’ve assembled the pieces of your “crisis campaign,” integrate them into an overall response plan. Establish a scale with clear examples of what warrants a potential disaster (“1”, “red”, “Olestra,” etc.) versus just a bit of cleanup.  Diagram the chain of command so it’s clear where to go for answers. Outline, step by step, how you will coordinate with internal groups and manage your external communications. Then set up a framework that supports the actions you need to take from start to finish.

Most importantly, communicate the plan internally. Not every component is relevant for every audience in your organization, but people will panic less when they a) know the plan exists and b) know what’s expected of them in an emergency. You might not be able to control the course of the crisis, but you can control a consistent narrative for your brand throughout the length of the ordeal.

What to do when there’s a problem

So, what do you do when that day arrives? You might receive warning that there’s trouble: Someone tips you off to something they overheard, an issue on social media begins escalating or a reporter reaches out with a request for your side of their as-yet-unknown story. 

You might be completely blindsided–suddenly fielding inquiries from outside the organization as well as executives, board members or other stakeholders. Either way, remember that the people in your organization are looking to you to lead them through this.

The framework you developed as part of your planning process should fit the structure and temperament of your organization so it’s easy to implement (especially when people might not be thinking clearly) and wholly manageable by you and your team. Here’s an example:

  1. ALERT – Confirm where the incident falls on your scale and notify the decision makers in your chain of command.
  2. ASSETS- Gather information on the nature of the threat and the players involved. Is your brand the focus or collateral damage? Who are the stakeholders and what are the short- and long-term impacts? Most importantly, is the information about your brand related to the accusation/charge/investigation even accurate?
  3. ACTIVATE- Implement the “response” portion of your plan. Whether you’re able to use your pre-prepared blurbs or you need to create something entirely new, ensure that everyone with any external-facing contact is on the same page. Be consistent and persistent with your answers and outreach. If you need to go on the offensive, focus only on your brand–pushing honest and relevant information to balance any negative hits.
  4. ADMINISTER – Think of this phase as very active maintenance. Continue to assess the situation and address any continued misconceptions or unresolved issues. The seriousness of the event will dictate how long this activity needs to continue and what your brand needs to do as follow-up once the furor dies down.

Remember that cooler heads will prevail in the end. It doesn’t matter if it’s merely a blip or a possible blow to your brand–breathe before you get ready for battle. 

And it may be hard, particularly in the midst of a contentious exchange, but also try to be as objective as possible. Of course you’re going to do everything you can to champion your brand, but this is an invaluable opportunity to view your organization through another’s eyes and see if there are changes you need to implement as part of your recovery.

One final thing to note: Crisis is derived from the Greek word krisis, meaning decisive moment or turning point. The idea is that the situation is not inherently disastrous; this is the juncture where things can get worse, or they can get better. With proper planning and the right perspective, you can provide that positive path forward for your brand.

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