Crisis communications in the new media environment, with Genesis Burson-Marsteller’s Nikhil Dey

Advancements in technology have brought tremendous change to the world of crisis communications, the most fundamental of which is the speed at which bad news can and does travel.  

The second change is the increased power of the individual voice that, thanks to social media channels, has made even the largest companies vulnerable to public criticism.  The third big change is the level of scrutiny companies are now under, which is unprecedented thanks in large part to the public’s ability to access and share information – even when that information isn’t factual.

To meet these rising challenges, crisis communicators need to communicate fast, communicate again and communicate in the language of the people who are impacted most by the issue or crisis at hand.  Although much has changed in the environment and the way bad news spreads about a company or a brand; the fundamentals for the effective handling of an issue or a crisis have not.  

This brings us to the four 'R's of effective crisis management.

1. Readiness

Readiness refers to the internal tools, resources, plans and procedures an organization has in place to be prepared for a crisis. This includes having protocols in place to classify various situations as a either an issue that typically needs monitoring and some intervention, or a full-fledged crisis that needs a  more targeted response. It also includes ongoing stakeholder mapping, communications tool kits and media response training of key team members. Companies that invest in readiness through training and familiarization of the core team that is expected to manage the crisis, help reduce the time spent on being shocked, in denial or anger and help focus the energies of crisis management team onto the actual actions they need to take.

2. Response

It does not matter if the company or client is the cause of the problem, if it impacts the company or brand reputation, you need to take charge and address the situation.

Companies should have updated assessments on stakeholder reactions to potential crisis scenarios. Response teams must be prepared to respond in an integrated, controlled and consistent manner. Part of the activation mechanism is to ensure a centralized approach and a limited number of spokespeople to comment on the crisis.

The ability to communicate effectively during a crisis is partly to do with having clarity of what action will or will not be taken by the company and then partly how that gets conveyed through proper messaging.  A good thumb rule to apply is the 5C principles: Concern, Commitment, Control, Confidence, and Competence.  It’s also important to remember that when responding online, tone of voice is critical – it needs to be personal, human and attributable.

3. Reassurance

This is a critical stage for you to rebuild or reestablish trust amongst stakeholders. As long as it takes, as many times as it needs to be said, the constant effort to reassure all those affected is a critical part of rebuilding trust.

4. Recovery

Recovery means reinforcing the corporate reputation and strengthening the level of trust amongst stakeholders. Equally important is to undertake measures designed to mitigate future vulnerability. It's a way to say we have learnt from this and have done everything possible to make sure something like this never happens again.

While the fundamentals of handling a crisis remain the same, the one area that has changed significantly is how to navigate the new media environment. The importance of being prepared to engage online is worth underlining.

Five things to consider doing if you have not already:

1. Set up an ongoing listening mechanism.

2. Get organizational, buy-in to the importance of social media.

3. Identify the top 20 e-fluentials relevant to your line of business and build relationships with them.

4. Know how you will speak online.

5. Establish social media guidelines for your team .

Nikhil Dey is President of Genesis Burson-Marsteller's public relations team