Communicate in a Crisis: The Guide for PR Pro Survival

Everybody makes mistakes. That’s to be expected. But that’s why we communications professionals measure, right? It’s about having the insights and ability to course-correct potential failures, provide guidance during unexpected events, advise around challenging contexts, mitigate risks and assist with resolutions.

And while often people think of PR Measurement as a tool to evaluate the effectiveness of communications after  the event, the connected communicator knows that it starts with planning. And Crisis Comms constitues one of the most practical applications of measurement. It’s about knowing your audience, understanding what your stakeholders believe in and what they want,  influencing behaviours and assessing outcomes and impact.

Everyone interested in the business of reputation should and must be concerned about good (and bad!) crisis management because the consequences of a crisis can define or redefine an entire organisation.

So, next on my list of useful PR resources was Communicate in a Crisis: Understand, Engage and Influence Consumer Behaviour to Maximize Brand Trust  by Kate Hartley.

Hartley’s book couldn’t be more timely; offering analysis of the highly volatile, uncertain and complex environment in which crises emerge, as well as tips, anecdotes, case studies and strategies on how to deal with thorny situations.

And here are my top key learnings. Here are the five crisis comms tips and reminders:

We live in an age of love-hate relationships

“We love to kick a brand when it’s down”, Kate Hartley explains.

She uses a few examples of famous ‘passion brands’ – the kind of brand that you would tattoo on your body. The kind of brand that people love, like Harley, VW, Apple and Nike.

Whenever there is a psychological contract between a brand and its consumers, a certain standard of behaviours is expected of them. Because sometimes, we feel like we ourselves own a brand. And when this sense of emotional ownership isn’t rewarded and when that contract is broken, it can trigger negative behaviours and even outrage.

Remember the five things brands do that trigger negative reactions:

  • Hit at core beliefs and values;
  • Attack social norms;
  • Go against its own ethics;
  • Take away our control;
  • Hurt something we relate to.

Data and insights are key to designing a crisis comms plan

You will know when things go wrong, because it will be made obvious. But is there a way to know whether you are on the right track during a crisis?

Kate Hartley’s argument is encouraging. She explains that issues cannot always be spotted ahead of time, but that with the right monitoring tools, organisations have the ability to scan conversations and gather relevant data for informed decisions more easily.

More importantly, she stresses the importance of “having not just the right data, but insight from that data to enable you to act quickly.” All comms disciplines are guilty of using dodgy data and therefore fail to plan and strategise appropriately. There remains a tendancy to lean on big numbers that don’t tell you much at all. In a crisis, that isn’t helpful. You want to cut through the noise and uncover the insights that matter, now.

Hartley suggests that communicators should review a wide range of data, from social media to search engine, consumer, polling and analysis data.

During the recovery phase, data and insights can concentrate around the metrics that were used pre-crisis, she also explains, particularly if you know what ‘normal’ looked like. In this case, a historical dataset could be used to inform of the success of the response plan.

Brands are more easily forgiven if they communicate empathy and take responsibility early

It is easier for brands to retreat behind corporate and formal statements when things go wrong. And it is usually the prefered method for the legal teams. But from a PR point of view, such an approach could have a disastrous impact on the crisis response strategy.

Instead, expressing empathy and behaving with compassion should be at the core of the response.

To develop empathy, Hartley recommends that PR practitioners:

  • See the world as others do;
  • Understand everyone’s feelings at play;
  • Remain non-judgmental;
  • Communicate that understanding clearly.

Social media is the new slingshot

The author makes strong arguments about the rapidly-changing environment practitioners evolve in, particularly with the omnipresence of social media, and focuses a lot of her analysis on the psychology of consumers when crises happen.

Brands used to use traditional media to communicate with their consumers, but this medium is slow, and no longer necessary thanks to the rise of social media. Social platforms have completely redefined the way brands engage with consumers, meaning that attitudes and needs evolved over time.

Consumer behaviour has changed, and so should brands’ communication when unexpected events occur. Engagement on social should be enhanced, authentic and consistent.

Combatting fake news requires the right technology

The right monitoring technology plays a pivotal role in tackling the rise and spread of misinformation and disinformation. Why? Because inaccurate information needs to be corrected as quickly as possible so brands can re-establish trust and position themselves as the voice of authority.

All in all, Hartley’s guidebook proves to be an engaging and accessible tool to help public relations practitioners survive the worst days of their careers. We have now entered an age of accountability and data-driven insights into human attitudes, behaviours and needs can be used to predict trends and support crisis management plans.

And it’s important to note that the author is realistic about the limitations around what technology can and cannot do. Predictive analysis and AI, she explains, are only as good as the data these programs use. If, and only if, the data provided is accurate and reasonable, the detection of risks could help avert a crisis.

Establishing a clear timeframe, having the right listening tools, collecting consumer intent-based metrics as well as data around complaints could all further strenghten the crisis strategy.

Ultimately, what remains crucial in crisis comms is the understanding of the different environments brands operate in and the audiences within them so they can best support their stakeholders and survive hostile situations when they need. When crises hit, it’s time for empathetic and compassionate communication. Those affected by the events should always be at the heart of the crisis response strategy. 2020 was certainly a clear reminder of this. And, as ever, planning; measurement; and evaluation is a fundamental pillar to support PR at times like these.

“Communicate in a Crisis: Understand, Engage and Influence Consumer Behaviour to Maximize Brand Trust” can be purchased here.

This blog originally appeared on CARMA’s Measurement Standard page.

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