Brand crisis management, step by step

Updated Sept 2021, originally posted July 2019

In 2019, I put together a step-by-step guide outlining my approach to social media crisis management. Little did I know that a year later the world would be sucker-punched by a global pandemic that would take over four million lives.

Since then I have seen what artfully crafted crisis management looks like, and I’ve also witnessed how poor crisis management can tarnish brand image.

In general, crisis management involves a step-by-step process of defining what a crisis is, whether it can be prevented before it happens, looking and listening for one, alerting the right people, planning what to do about it, and controlling the narrative. Let’s explore each step:

1. Defining a crisis

Depending on your brand's tone, approach, and size, a social media crisis can take on varied forms. The first step in managing crises is to be able to quickly identify a legitimate crisis situation versus a non-crisis customer experience situation.

I typically define a crisis as a scenario that results in broad impacts such as lost profitability or disruption to operational efficiency. A crisis seldom builds over time; instead, it tends to appear as a furious nucleation of events often beyond your immediate control. Here are some examples of potential crises:

  • Misinformation. It’s important to be able to detect and dispel rumors that could have the potential to spread across channels.

  • Internal affair. Companies are comprised of people, and not all people adhere to the same ethical and moral standards as each other.

  • Industry crisis. A vendor or competitor is experiencing a social media crisis and has the potential to produce collateral damage.

  • The altar of opinion. An unpopular business action that is resulting in widespread disruption of social narrative.

Regardless of the type of crisis, it's important to give it boundaries—perhaps with potential scenarios—so that they're easier to spot and deal with when one arises.

2. Preventing a crisis

It's important to stay firmly plugged into the internal affairs of your company, and to subscribe to industry outlets and newsletters. Join industry-related groups and set up operating procedures to check these feeds each day. Form connections with coworkers outside of your immediate team—it pays to make a friend with public relations or legal background. With a bit of luck, it is possible to catch a situation as it is happening and take control of it before its exposure can become a full-blown crisis.

3. Detecting a crisis

When it’s not possible to mitigate a situation before it becomes public, maintain strong social media listening habits.

I use a service based out of Belarus called Awario which provides excellent boolean listing options, brand monitoring, and real-time mention search. Small businesses can get started for as little as $288 per year, which is an incredible deal considering competitors are priced in the tens-of-thousands per year for access to their data.

There is an abundance of social listening services out there, and it’s important to shop around for a service that fits your specific needs.

If you think you have a crisis on your hands, detecting also means documenting. Social media is a nebulous environment—posts can be edited and deleted by the author, and posts can be removed through content moderation. Whatever you encounter should be logged for future reference.

4. Alerting the team

Postpone planned content; doing so will help you focus on and contain the situation to the best of your ability.

Before responding, make sure all of the appropriate stakeholders in your crisis plan are made aware of the situation. Depending on the nature of the crisis, stakeholders could include human resources, public relations, C-suite, legal counsel, or a combination thereof.

Depending on the complexity of your organization, you may want to put together a communication matrix to determine who needs to be informed and when. Your crisis comms matrix should include specific points-of-contact in each department and the fastest way to contact them.

Some companies may prefer to establish a hierarchical order of who’s edicts supersedes who. I prefer to put together an interdepartmental crisis response team that has agreed to be on standby for a conference call whenever a crisis is identified.

5. Putting together a response plan

Consult with your internal resources to consider the best approach and response given the nature of the crisis. At this point you may want to consider writing a situational brief depending on the severity of the situation. A situational brief outlines:

  1. What is happening and how we found out

  2. Who is involved and what is impacted

  3. What the team knows about the details

  4. What the team has agreed to do

  5. (Later you can include the results or findings of that decision)

Before you respond, get up and take a walk. You will want to be in the right head-space in order to approach the situation in a way that best represents the brand in the desired tone and voice.

6. Control with clarity, conviction, and kindness

Responding is a double-edged sword, but a necessary one. Controlling a situation means acknowledging one exists, and in doing so you are both addressing down the crisis and inviting more attention to it. Therefore, restoring trust is difficult and time-consuming. Tensions run high, so it’s crucial that any response be crafted within a framework of kindness—frame your words carefully.

You don't need a script per-se, but stay consistent with the messaging plan and don’t veer too far from the original talking points. Don’t invite interpretation; make sure your response is clear and thorough. In other words: avoid legalese, jargon, or conjecture.

When appropriate and feasible, you can delete any conversation threads that you've documented. If the thread is out of your hands, distance yourself from it and try to get to business as usual. The faster you can get to regular content safely and appropriately, the easier it will be to put the crisis behind you.