I recently did a presentation on managing your brand in the midst of a crisis. Access my slide deck here: 

(Find additional free crisis management resources here.)

With social media platforms giving everyone a voice to easily speak their minds to a large audience, brands can’t simply ignore crises as they unfold. No company is immune to problems, mistakes, and critiques, and though larger brands tend to get the most attention for their missteps, all companies need to be prepared to address critics and crises. This makes having an airtight crisis communications strategy more important than ever.

Whether the crisis is something as large as Boeing’s recent 737 Max disasters or as simple as a customer leaving a complaint on your Facebook timeline, how a brand reacts to these situations will determine the true magnitude of the problem.

That doesn’t mean your brand helpless. There are a few things that you can do to reduce the impact of any crisis, and possibly even leverage a bad situation to build further trust and loyalty with your target audience.

Create a plan – before an emergency occurs.

This one is important: always have a plan. Simply being well prepared and having a rock-solid strategy in place can drastically minimize the impact of a crisis if and when one occurs.

Every company should have procedures for dealing with issues such as customer service complaints, product/service problems, ex-employee frustrations and any backlash regarding sensitive industry issues. These traditional problems, whether your brand has made a mistake and is at fault or not, are now amplified by the amount of online discussion now connecting people worldwide.

When it comes to digital marketing, make sure to have additional plans to address:

  • Complaints in online review places, such as Yelp, Google My Business, and Facebook
  • Repeated posts by angry individuals who may be interacting with your brand or your customers/potential customers on accounts such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
  • Fake accounts created by people seeking to do your brand damage
  • False information about your brand that has gone viral

Not every situation is predictable, but you can prepare the team best fit to fix whatever arises. Which leads right into our next point…

Inform your team and identify spokespeople.

You might outline a plan, but that won’t help if your team has no awareness of its existence. Be sure all your employees understand what steps need to be taken if they are confronted with an issue and who the right people are to direct those inquiries to.

Identify the appropriate spokespeople who are responsible for having a comprehensive understanding of the company’s stance on the issue and communicating that over the appropriate channels. Just like any marketing campaign, make sure your message is consistent through all channels and personalized. This consistency is especially important during crises.

Identify the appropriate channels to reach your target audience.

You may recall a Tik Tok of a Panera employee revealing that their famous Mac n’ Cheese was frozen and cooked in a plastic bag that quickly went viral last year. The biggest mistake the brand made was not communicating with its customers in the right way roundly rejecting any criticism they faced, and ultimately firing the employee who took the Tik Tok–which further tarnished their image and made the company seem petty.

Yes, they made a statement reiterating their food-making process to media outlets, but the majority of conversations around the issue were circulating on places like Twitter and Facebook. There was no official post made by Panera Bread on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram regarding the incident, allowing the public to largely dominate the online conversation. Panera then refused to comment on the firing of the employee, saying that they, “don’t comment on personnel matters”, which only compounded the issue and reflected poorly on the brand. Instead of going to their audience, the brand became largely silent and evasive on the channels their audience actually use, which led to more backlash and increased a perceived sense of insensitivity.

Monitor the crisis on various channels and react accordingly in real-time.

Start with a statement to your customers letting them know you are aware of the issue at hand and that you are taking the necessary steps to resolve it. If you are already armed with a plan to tackle it, communicate this to your customers and offer solutions to ease their concerns.

Don’t delay your response to a problem. Boeing’s brand didn’t benefit from negative commentary with regard to its timeliness, and their relentless pushback and reluctance to be truthful about the matter made them the subject of relentless coverage and investigative journalism pieces. This only further tarnished their already floundering brand image.

Assign a team to monitor any comments around the issue on various channels including traditional and new media to react in a timely manner. According to a recent analysis by Hubspot, 80 percent of customers expect companies to respond to their social media inquiries within 24 hours, and 50% of customers claim they would cease business with a company that fails to respond to a negative social media post. Be responsive.

While you may not respond to every single complaint (especially if you identify people trolling your page), you should monitor these comments as best as possible to understand how each is impacting your brand. Responding to as many complaints as possible, just as you would in-person and over the phone, is critical to your customer service reputation and to your goal of building customer loyalty.

Leverage a bad situation for the good of all.

We’re all humans and even your customers can forgive a mishap when it is handled in the right way. Brands can improve their relationships with customers by taking immediate action in the event of a crisis and taking the necessary steps to not only offer active solutions but also communicate those solutions to customers quickly and effectively. You’re not going to be successful in winning everyone over, but providing great customer service- whether it’s on a regular day or amidst a brand meltdown- will reflect well on your brands’ reputation.

Whatever the issue, whether a small problem or a large crisis, strong handling of the situation can undo or at least significantly mitigate much of the damage. If someone complains on your Facebook page, respond immediately. Apologize for their issue and sympathize with their frustration. Offer a solution. Facilitate problem-solving. Others will see this and realize you’re a good company to work with – even when an issue pops up.