Crisis communications in the modern era: How dealing with the issue itself is now just a small part of the problem for companies

Crisis communications in the modern era: How dealing with the issue itself is now just a small part of the problem for companies

Businesses have, over the years, become very adept at dealing with a crisis communications issue.

Nine times out of 10 a company stumbles blindly into a situation via a combination of mistakes and, unfortunately, misses opportunities to nip it in the bud.

This issue, accidental or not, is likely to cost companies large amounts of money in terms of repairing the reputational damage and lost sales and the even worse news is that its legacy, thanks to the internet, can last for a lifetime.

There are a significant number of public relations agencies and consultancies out there that claim to specialise in helping a brand navigate through a crisis. Having worked in PR for a Government utility in the early stages of my career, and then the world’s largest bus and rail company after that, and then an insurance company that, at the time, was the 5th largest company in the world, I have dealt with my own large share of corporate crisis situations.

People like me almost had a tried and tested crisis communications mantra and template that could fit nearly every business and industry. 1. Apologise where you can (without admitting legal liability). 2. Turn off your pro-active communications and marketing until it’s over. 3. Announce an independent, third-party investigation into the issue. 4. Announce the results and learning from that investigation and then, if the crisis was still hitting the headlines move to… 5. Announce one of the C-suite was leaving because of it.

That 5-point plan, passed on from generation to generation of crisis communications specialists, has done us fine until the internet.

The internet has made crisis communications into a far longer and more drawn-out recovery process. It is not just enough to deal with the situation that has happened via media statements and a well-prepared Q&A document of every potential negative question that a journalist may ask. Brands now need to deal with the aftermath, which is negative stories floating around Google for their company name.

I know this only too well having worked with a significant number of companies who have got themselves out of the media storm, only to walk into negative online stories that have affected their sales. Take for example a high street optician that we worked with on a crisis communications brief.

Something went wrong, it blew up into a storm and whilst the immediate media situation was effectively dealt with, the negative articles created a problem. Those bad articles arrived at the top of Google for the brand name, plus when consumers added the word “research” to that name. This was estimated to be costing the company several million pounds of lost revenue every week.

This is where digital public relations can play a vital part in the path out of a modern-day online reputation management situation.

Done correctly, the digital PR machine can flood Google with positive stories about the brand and if the news sites that cover the good news have just as strong, or even stronger a reputation in Google’s eyes, then it can push the negative news down. This is exactly the approach we took with the high street opticians, and it worked.

This is a strategy that is also used in the murky world of political and personal PR. If a negative story is dominating the search engines, then it becomes the job of the digital teams to look at the content and stories causing the issue and work out a plan to come up with similar content, but with a positive vibe.

This new era of extended crisis communications is why so many “traditional” public relations and consultancy firms are failing to grasp the full situation. Not many of these companies fully understand the long-term digital ramifications of a negative scenario.

A strong example of a global brand using digital campaigns to saturate search engines with positive news would be Amazon. It has announced, on several occasions, that it is close to being able to launch drone-based delivery services. The last time it talked about this publicly was to announce a small test was going to be taking place in a town in America.

Every time this story comes out, the global media writes it up. A massive general brand awareness win but also a very clever and successful way of moving anything negative about the brand down the search engine rankings. As an aside, it is interesting to note that both the UK and US aviation authorities have shot down (not literally) talk of drone delivery services happening in the short term. Still, it is a story that works well for Amazon.

Can a small to medium-sized business use this same tactic to help move negative mentions down? Of course they can. All that is needed is a solid news angle, a media database full of contacts and the skills to understand which news websites will have the strongest effect, and this is where digital public relations can come into its own.

Of course, as we say to our clients and customers, it may be an idea to just not do bad things but, as we all know, life is never as straight forward or as simple as that.

Andy Barr is the co-founder and owner of 10 Yetis Digital. The agency has advised large global brands and FTSE organisations on crisis communications scenarios and has similarly worked on these kinds of campaigns for individuals and small businesses alike. Andy has worked on online campaigns for both the major political parties in the UK and advised a Chinese political and business delegation that visited the UK on the West’s approach to handling crisis situations in the media.
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