The Master of Arts in Integrated Marketing Communication online at the University of North Carolina Wilmington includes an elective, Crisis Communication and IMC, that provides a fascinating overview of crisis communication practices and theories as they relate to branding and integrated marketing.
Everything we do in integrated marketing ultimately addresses brand value. In a very brief time, a mishandled crisis can destroy brand value that took years to build. That makes effective crisis communication on issues that potentially impact brands — litigation, HR complaints, environmental disasters, product failures — one of an organization’s most critical marketing and PR skills.
Crisis communicators “strive to persuade publics to respond in a way that will prevent, mitigate, or manage a crisis” (Littlefield et al, 2021). For example, the FBI, police departments or the Centers for Disease Control employ crisis communicators to alert the public.
Crises break quickly and demand decisive action. They differ from ordinary events in scale and in the pressure for leaders to respond with solutions to minimize risks and maximize possible outcomes. Crisis response begins with the anticipation of problems but generally occurs in three phases: before, during and after the crisis has passed.
When crises are mishandled, panic takes over and spirals the situation out of control. When crises are handled well, it is usually the result of a team of communicators collaborating on ways to mitigate financial and reputational loss. Press conferences, public statements, working with government agencies and crisis alerts may all be part of the plan.
Five Types of Crisis Communication
Organizational: A business exploits its customers for profit or information
Personnel: An internal scandal impacts the company’s reputation
Financial: A business quickly loses value in its assets and cannot pay expenses
Technological: Technology crashes or is hacked, causing access problems for customers
Natural: Severe weather or natural disasters disrupt business functions
Top organizations have crisis response plans for each type of crisis, if not others, more specific to their own circumstances. Effective plans include several basic steps:
- Organize core response and executive response teams. The former evaluates incidents, convenes the experts who will work on the problem, and manages the project to resolution. The latter is responsible for minimizing business impact and communicating with constituents.
- Develop a mobilization plan. How will the team collaborate and delegate responsibilities, and how often will you report publicly? Establish the chain of command and consider the workflow and available channels of communication.
- Respond quickly, communicate often and be consistent. Get out in front of the problem, admit to wrongdoing, be transparent about the process of rectifying the problem, and be consistent with brand voice and with one another. Leaders must not contradict each other.
- Evaluate performance. Survey everyone involved — internal leaders, employees affected, the media, constituents — to gather feedback. Learn what worked, what did not and discuss how to improve the process.
Best Case, Worst Case
Johnson & Johnson set a high bar for crisis communication in 1982 when seven people died in the Chicago area after taking extra-strength Tylenol capsules containing cyanide. The company quickly mobilized with the FBI and police to pull 31 million bottles from the shelves and find the killer. They re-introduced the product with tamper-resistant packaging.
Ironically, one of the worst examples of crisis communication comes from the leaders of a communication platform. In 2018 allegations broke from The New York Times and The Guardian that the research firm Cambridge Analytica had misused 50 million Facebook users’ data. Mark Zuckerberg and his leadership team were silent for five full days and still did not respond contritely enough for the public when he finally appeared on CNN.
At any organization, no one knows when the next crisis will strike or what it will be, but every organization must prepare for the absolute worst. The importance of this PR discipline places the well-trained practitioner in high demand.