How to Emerge From a Brand Crisis Stronger Than Ever
Not long ago, our social media news feeds were flush with coverage of the United Airlines brand crisis. For those who came in late, a man (who had paid for his ticket) was forcefully dragged from his seat and hauled out of the plane as a consequence of an overbooking error made by the airline.
Here is the footage:
Almost immediately upon the scuffle breaking out, passengers began recording the incident on their phones. Clips began hitting the airwaves within minutes.
The way in which United handled the situation effectively turned the crisis into a full-blown disaster. No wonder its stock plummeted the following day.
One of the most important things a brand needs to understand about PR these days is that almost everyone has a camera in a pocket and the means to broadcast recordings of what they're seeing to the entire world.
A webinar hosted by Hootsuite revealed that 28 percent of crises that major brands face spread internationally within the hour. With this in mind, companies need to be on top of developing issues and start damage control proceedings as soon as humanly possible. In a time when fast reactions can either spell life or death for a business, sticky situations must be handled very carefully.
Here are three essential actions to take.
Own Up Your Mistake, Brands
If there is one thing we can all learn from the United Airlines crisis, it’s how not to respond. Here was the initial statement from CEO Oscar Munoz:
“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”
He apologized for “having to re-accommodate these customers,” not for a passenger being forcefully ripped out of the seat he rightfully purchased. By doing this and not owning the full extent of the incident, Munoz essentially threw gas on the fire. He went on to call the customer “disruptive and belligerent” in an internal email, before issuing a public apology. By then, it was clearly too late.
The first order of business in the face of a PR crisis is to acknowledge the situation in its entirety. Honesty and accountability are two of the most important components in a communication strategy.
We’ve seen it time and time again that executives behind large oak desks think they can put their own spin on a widespread crisis, pass the blame and make it out unscathed. However, these executives only manage to dig themselves a bigger and deeper hole. The 2010 BP Oil Spill was a prime example.
Remember to tread lightly in the initial public statement. You want to let people know you’re aware of the situation, but you don’t want to jump to any hard-and-fast conclusions before the full picture is revealed. It’s best to first publish a neutral, formal statement acknowledging the facts and assuring people that you're investigating the matter further.
Let People Talk (and Listen to Them)
As dangerous as social media can be terms of brand crises, it has its benefits. After the initial response, the smartest thing you can do is listen (with a self-critical ear) to what people are saying about the subject.
In the Internet-centric age, this is where technology comes to the rescue. A social media intelligence tool can give marketers the means to stay on top of (and engage quickly when necessary) what is being said about particular brands, topics or specific keywords. Listening in on conversations about your brand is just half the story; it also lets you filter messages and manage responses with data-driven sentiment analysis.
To manage your audience relationships during a brand crisis, it’s very important to show restraint, if not keep quiet. When emotions are running high, intervening in conversations could end up backfiring and escalating the situation. Here is probably the most atrocious example of a business sabotaging itself via social media following a crisis:
When the time is right to respond to people directly, keep it short. Offer a direct contact. As we all can attest, social media live streams and walls are not particularly known for being places where issues get settled.
Keep the Public Updated
Transparency is an extremely valued business trait these days. A big blunder is going silent after a crisis. Target landed itself in social media hot water for doing this a few years ago, after failing to prepare adequately for the launch of a new clothing line.
If you’re in the middle of resolving a brand crisis, make sure you're keeping people in the loop on your research and investigation proceedings. Inform them of any positive updates or corrections as soon as possible. If your company is at fault, make sure the masses are seeing the steps you’ve taken to fix the issue.
In 2009, Domino’s was in the midst of a PR disaster when a video surfaced of an employee practicing some unsanitary procedures (to put it lightly). Within 24 hours, the president of the company apologized, and spoke publicly about the measures it was taking to prevent such issues in the future, including firing guilty employees and revamping its hiring process.
Even though the brand’s reputation was tarnished, the immediate response did a lot to soften the blow and make it clear that the mistake would not be repeated. Transparency like this is key during tough times.
Return to the Drawing Board
In the 24/7 news cycle we currently live in, it's nearly impossible to avoid lapses in public judgment in one form or another, however few and far between they might be. Regardless of whether it is a minor mishap or a large-scale meltdown, there always needs to be a period of re-evaluation.
Even after the crisis dies down, it is necessary to dissect the events. This means documenting every piece of communication pertaining to the event, including:
- Social media interactions
- Response protocol effectiveness
- Change in Web traffic patterns
- Search volume patterns
- Platform-specific notifications
- Offline media coverage
A successful solution starts on the inside and works its way out. With the entire staff, step back and critically analyze what happened, and what led to it. This is where open communication and efficient teamwork across departments are vital. A CMO or other high-level executive can manage the brand’s crisis response to intensify communication between the PR, marketing and customer care departments so that the number, speed, and quality of responses are all improved and nothing is left to chance.
Without this crucial reflection and revival stage, there is no telling how many more times a brand crisis will occur. One of the worst things that can happen to your brand reputation is that you make the same mistake twice.
Maintaining a spotless image will always be a daunting task for a for-profit business. Always remember, a crisis does not define a brand; the way it's handled ultimately makes a much bigger impact. Good luck!