Just 60 days ago, businesses were flourishing. Many of us were experiencing significant momentum and on track to have one of our best years ever. We had strong teams, and we were even hiring for new positions. Then, within days, things changed drastically. Due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, crisis mode began. We were not able to perform our core businesses at all. Customers and vendors were also similarly affected. Like a ripple effect, this crisis began to impact business after business, industry after industry. Collectively, we were all caught on our heels.
Now, if you had a Crisis Communication and Marketing Plan at the ready before all this happened, you would be five steps ahead. But, most of us didn’t have one; after all, we were so busy thriving in a robust economy. Understandably, our preparedness to deal with the pandemic affecting us wasn’t up to par. We had long forgotten the past crises or thought some other part of our organization was ready for that. So here we are. Now what?
In my career as a marketing and communications director for remote mountain resorts, we had to be prepared for all manner of crisis – storms, wildfires, floods. Even large-scale, international events required the same level of communication as a crisis. Crisis communication potentially could be lifesaving, but more often (thankfully), it was how we let our community members and guests know what was happening, what to expect, and how and when things would get back to normal. On the marketing side, we wanted people to understand how they could volunteer or be involved, and to ensure business continuity. For example, a powerful blizzard that garners international headlines such as, “Snowstorm Closes Colorado” doesn’t literally mean the resorts were closed down. However, it does mean there will be challenges in transportation. In this situation, we needed to communicate how and when to best travel to our destination. That was our crisis marketing goal.
Yes, we had formal plans in place, but we also had to be flexible and ready to pivot. It is from these times that I became experienced in what I call: Crisis Marketing In Realtime.
Steps to a Realtime Crisis Marketing Strategy
Importantly, set a goal for your plan. What is the outcome you are trying to achieve? Who are the stakeholders and customers you need to reach? What are the best-case and worst-case scenarios? It is very important to think through your goals and then craft your plan, messaging and media channels accordingly. Once you have your goals established, the following actions will get your crisis marketing plan off to a solid start.
- Establish a spokesperson – Following suit of governmental agencies and establishing a Public Information Officer (PIO) is advisable for crisis communication. Your PIO should be someone who has the experience, authority, and, importantly, the time to speak to the media. While your PIO must be well versed in the situation, he or she should also convey a sense of calm and authority. They should know what to say (and what not to say) while being authentic. Having the time to talk to the media is of critical importance. In some cases, the seemingly obvious choice for your PIO, for example, the CEO, is not the best as they are often pulled in too many directions during a crisis. The PIO should attend all critical meetings and have access to the latest information on the crisis and respond to media requests within reason.
- Create firm talking points and educate your frontline staff – Controlling the narrative is essential to containing the spread of misinformation that leads to panic and loss of business. Start with what you know of the situation and create a bulleted list of information that you want your frontline staff and other stakeholders to share. Be as transparent as is appropriate and set the expectation that accurate information is the only information they can share. When a new question comes up answering, “I don’t know, but let me find out for you” is the only acceptable answer. You must have a follow-up loop established to ensure the question gets answered, both directly to the person who asked the question and added to the FAQ. In highly dynamic situations, release a daily update to your FAQs at a specific time each date then periodically spot-check your staff for accuracy.
- Tune into your social channels – Setting forth on social media with an authentic message and enabling your stakeholders to “spread the message” is a powerful combination. Also, be hyper-vigilant on what others are saying about your situation. Search hashtags and monitor your feeds for misinformation and correct immediately.
- Look for bright spots – Even in the worst crisis, there are stories of hope. Keep an eye out for these stories and tell them whenever you can.
- Innovate – Once the critical time has passed, and you are ready to focus on returning to business as usual (or the new normal), think about what new ideas you have about your business and how you communicate to your customers and stakeholders. What opportunities have presented themselves that you can leverage going forward? Maybe you discovered your Facebook page was the fastest way to spread accurate information. How can you now leverage that channel for reaching your customers with other news?
Whether you are a marketer for a large enterprise or a small business, implementing a step-by-step crisis communication and marketing plan can help your business weather a crisis and emerge with stronger customer interactions afterward.