InScope: Lessons in crisis communication from the front line

Lauren Gibb is a Social Executive for OMD Create Sydney, supplying innovative social and content solutions for a wide range of client challenges.

In the age of social media, it’s no secret that a crisis can turn from manageable to monstrous in minutes. You can be hung out to dry if you’re not prepared, and if the issue is not immediately addressed, it can cause irreparable damage to your brand.

Take the Victoria’s Secret scandal of late last year, when the company’s CMO Ed Razek told Vogue that Victoria’s Secret would never have transgender or plus-size models walking in their show, “because the show is a fantasy”. In the time it took for the company to issue a formal apology, challenger brands like ThirdLove had already made moves to capitalise on the crisis, providing consumers with another option that was the “antithesis of Victoria’s Secret”. This scandal not only highlighted the importance of listening to wider societal trends that impact your brand, but also that if you don’t come out and own your own narrative immediately, it’s up for grabs.

As a consumer and community manager, it’s easy to see through the BS when something isn’t handled correctly. When you’re on the front line responding to people on social media, acting as the human representation of a brand, it’s the best crash-course in learning the right (and wrong) ways to balance meeting the concerns and expectations of real consumers, whilst simultaneously protecting the brand you are representing.

From the perspective of a community manager, here are four key considerations to remember when dealing with a crisis online:

Empathy

Some people are prone to leaving empathy at the front door when they enter the world of social media. We can all forget that the digital entities commenting on posts are real people, with real lives and real problems.

From a community management perspective, it’s always important to enter every conversation with empathy. If someone is genuinely upset, put yourself in their shoes. If someone is getting frustrated, listen to what they have to say, and try to see the issue from their perspective. Conflict minimisation should be the first step when dealing with an online crisis, with a focus on understanding and finding a resolution. Try to understand the genuine problem with empathy, and then diffusing the situation from there. Listen to what the person really needs.

Censorship

It’s a word with many consequences and applications. We’re living in a world where international governments can censor what their citizens can see online, and censorship of various viewpoints on online public forums has contributed to political turmoil and conflict. Censorship on both sides of the spectrum (being censored or a lack of censorship) can be dangerous and should not be taken lightly. It is especially important to have a good grasp of what ethical censorship entails, especially when it falls into in the hands of brands.

If we’ve learnt anything from the disaster that was FYRE festival, deleting comments and refusing to respond only adds fuel to the fire (pun intended). While this is definitely a no-no, in most cases, community managers are representing a brand, which means you need to take brand safety measures into account. Any comments posted with the intent to harass or harm are 100% in your rights to hide as a moderator, and most brand pages have guidelines in place that ensure consumers are aware that comments of this nature will be hidden. It is important to note that] someone trashing your brand is not considered harassment as it isn’t causing harm to anyone. As much as you’d like to just hide that comment that says your brand sucks, it’s simply unethical to do so. Instead, engage with the person (with empathy) and attempt to find a resolution.

Proactivity

Social media is very unpredictable. It’s easy to think it’ll be a quiet day, and then BAM, you’re hit with something totally unexpected at 3pm on a Sunday, much like the NRMA after this press conference went viral. While this case was more humorous than serious, if something does go wrong, you need to have procedures and measures already in place to respond quickly.

Depending on the industry, it’s important to consider different scenarios that may be likely to happen at one point or another in the future. Most brands and industries have crisis communications plans in place, and it’s important to also consider social media as a large driver of the conversation in a crisis. Having a strategy and responses crafted in anticipation for the unknown will always help you come out on top after it’s all over, and will help you to break through a cluttered conversation with clarity. Keeping your responses timely is also important, and the earlier you have all your responses approved and ready to go, the better.

Transparency

Without transparency, there is less trust. Sprout Social’s report, “Social media & the evolution of transparency” noted that 9 out of 10 consumers will not purchase from brands that lack transparency. Another interesting point to note was that 85% of respondents would be more likely to give a business a second chance after a bad experience, granted they had a good history of transparency. In an age where more and more people are seeking out products and brands that reflect their own personal values, it’s important to be upfront and honest, including when you’re admitting you’ve made a mistake.

As is the case in real life, the blame game gets you nowhere, and bad news spreads fast. If your brand has made a mistake, own up to it. If something isn’t as transparent as it should be, communicate that. There may be immediate consequences, but people will respect your brand more for owning up to the mistake. It’s obvious to the audience when brands try to hide something – everyone can see through it. Again, think back to how you’d like to be personally treated, and work towards that.

While this all sounds quite obvious at face value, the hardest part is ensuring it all gets put into practice. Sometimes there are so many different angles and reasons as to why something may have occurred and who could be responsible, that the message you’ve carefully crafted can get lost. If you’re part of a large organisation or brand with hundreds of moving parts, personalities and agendas, everything can tend to get a bit convoluted sometimes, especially in a crisis.

As a community manager, keeping the balance between your personal values and brand values can be tough sometimes, especially in a crisis. But as brands worldwide face the fact that being truthful is more important than ever before, I believe that we’re coming closer to transparency and empathy becoming the bare-minimum standard for communications between brands and consumers.


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