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All brands falter now and again, even stylish and elegant brands. It depends on the mistake, but most negative situations can still be salvaged. Sometimes, however, a business compounds the errors and turns an entirely recoverable problem into a death spiral. Unchecked, these additional errors could lead to lawsuits, a bad image, or even closure of the company.

If you want to protect yourself in a crisis, here is a list of things not to do:

Drag Your Feet

The key to any crisis is swift and decisive action. Every moment that goes by without some sort of controlling action on your part is an opportunity for the situation to escalate. Wait too long, and things may become too much to handle. “Crisis” doesn’t necessarily mean “immediate”, either. There have been situations where a problem has been called to the organization’s attention and swept under the rug, only to have it blow up in their faces after a long period of quiet.

Cut off Communication

Brand crises sometimes trigger a media circus, with both customers and reporters calling you for a statement or even to acknowledge the problem. When this happens to you, don’t shut them out. As painful as facing the public might be, they’re actually giving you an opportunity to tell your side of the story: to defend yourself, explain the situation, and make it right. Cut them off, and they’re going to fill in the blanks themselves—most likely with unflattering remarks. Your brand manager should be the friendly face that continues the communication.

Talk Around the Problem

When you do step to the podium and talk to the public, they will be expecting you to address the situation at hand. Don’t hedge and speak of issues unrelated to the problem—even if you (wrongly) attribute it to them, the public is smarter than you think. They’ll know that you’re attempting to misdirect them by casting blame or attention on something else. In trying to protect your image, you’re actually dealing it more damage.

Act without Thinking

I’ve worked with managers who pride themselves on “off-the-cuff” thinking and “spur of the moment” action, but in a crisis that’s the last thing you want to be doing. Flippant remarks have a way of backfiring at the speaker, and if that happens to be the company president or some other highly placed employee, then the company’s image has just been dunked in the toilet. Likewise, issuing statements without supporting evidence will land you in trouble after people start checking your facts. The same applies to any remedial actions you make. Be sure you understand the source of the problem before you do anything, otherwise your efforts will be ineffective and look half-hearted.

Don’t Have a Plan

Do you know what happens when you don’t have a plan? People panic and stumble around blindly. Efforts aren’t coordinated and teams get in each other’s way. An already difficult situation is made even worse because the clock is ticking while an organization is still trying to figure out what is happening—much less what to do.

Plans help mitigate this by anticipating certain scenarios and drafting up a set of procedures to guide people through the initial moment of panic. Granted, you can’t plan for everything, but a good plan can easily be adapted to other purposes.

When people think of branding crisis, high profile incidences such as the BP oil spill come to mind. However, social media crises are becoming increasingly common. They can affect businesses both large and small. A new report from the Altimeter Group suggests that 76% of this year’s social media crises could have been minimized or avoided altogether if the company involved had trained their staff to respond appropriately.

But first, what is a social media crisis? By definition, it is a business crisis that is caused or exacerbated by social networking. A good example would be the public relations crisis that Nestle faced a little over a year ago when Greenpeace criticized their use of palm oil by posting a video of an office worker biting an orangutan’s finger rather than a Nestle candy bar.

Nestle responded by having YouTube remove the video and directing visitors to its social networking pages to an official response. Some responses to negative posts were made, but these were attacking and very unprofessional. When the number of negative comments reached epic proportions, the company began to delete them.

In short, Nestle acted both defensively and offensively, but never proactively. Like many UK companies, Nestle did not have a plan for dealing with social media crises. Here are a few things that should be a part of every company’s public relation crisis plan:

  1. Delegation of duties. When you have a social media crisis, you will need to have a person seeking out the negative buzz on the internet and (if possible) another one responding to it. All responses on the internet should be made in a positive, professional tone with no immaturity or attacking language.
  2. Respond in kind. It is usually the best plan to respond in the same format in which the attack on your company was made. For example, create a video response for a critical YouTube video and post it as a response. This way, every person who views the video will also view a link to your side of the issue.
  3. Be human. Now is not the time to sound like a corporate wonk. Although it is important to behave professionally, you should be as personal as possible. People will attack an impersonal corporation before they will go after a real person.
  4. Respect freedom of speech. When Nestle lobbied to have the Greenpeace video deleted and later began deleting comments, they came across as trying to squash the other side’s point of view. They looked like an angry Goliath attacking a dissenter. This fed the flames of the crisis and enraged many people in the UK and elsewhere.
  5. Emphasize the positive. Bring up ways that you are dealing positively with the issue. For example, Nestle could have explained that many people in the candy industry use palm oil, that the company was aware of the potential issues and that they are looking for an affordable, less destructive alternative. In other words, the company is changing for the better, but this takes time.
Mash Bonigala

Mash B. is the Founder & CEO of SpellBrand. Since 1998, Mash has helped conscious brands differentiate themselves and AWAKEN through Brand Strategy and Brand Identity Design. Schedule a Brand Strategy Video Call with Mash.