Entrepreneur and communicator

How to Avoid a Brand Crisis in 48 Hours

When Victor Dlamini and I launched social media crisis consultancy 48 Hours late last year, we had no idea how enthusiastically the offering would be received. The response exceeded even our optimistic expectations. It became clear to us immediately that this was a service that corporate executives – and specifically those in marketing and communication – desperately needed. Off the back of the launch’s success and subsequent client engagements, the Nedbank IMC conference invited us to present our ideas around online crises.

The following is a transcript of our presentation, titled How to Avert a Brand Crisis in 48 Hours:

Why Online Crises Happen

The big shift from print and broadcast media to online channels, coupled with the ubiquity of social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and others, has significantly accelerated the speed at which information can be disseminated to millions of people around the world.

Someone – a customer, an employee, or even a curious bystander – can post something that quickly goes viral and leads to crisis. Once this happens, not even the source of the message has the power to reign it in. Gone are the days when the time it took for a story to go from the journalist to the editor to the printing press bought businesses time to intervene and block a story. By the mere click of a button on a smartphone, decades-old brands have seen their reputations decimated. In this new world of democratised mass publishing, every business should consider itself a candidate for an existential crisis. As such, every business should be crisis ready with access to the resources and expertise to manage this crisis should it occur.

Given the many examples of well-publicised online crises, we have to ask why so many companies are still so vulnerable to crisis and, when it strikes, why they seem so unprepared to respond. One of the most glaring weaknesses is that even as the internet and online platforms have become the de facto marketplace, many companies still behave as if online channels are the outlier and their brand predominantly exists in print or traditional broadcast media. Companies under-invest in their online presence, or when they do invest, it is one-directional, designed to tell the world about themselves but not to listen and respond to what the outside world is telling them. When a negative post starts to gather steam and portend trouble for an organisation, it is telling that so often, the company is blissfully unaware of the threat to their reputation and their business. 

This is what led us to the founding of 48H. We observed that so many otherwise outstanding organisations were not fully geared for the fast-moving world of online media and the rapid speed at which it can become a full-blown crisis, spilling over from online platforms and turning into lost sales as consumers sentiment sours against the target of the online attacks.

We’ve all seen how an offending advert or a poorly imagined post can lead to a real-life picket. And we tell our clients when we first meet them that if a crisis is not sufficiently managed within the first 48H, you’ve likely lost control of the narrative. That’s why our motto and promise is crisis averted. As a result, we’ve been able to steer clients away from disaster and bring them back to a sure footing. 

The Value of Perspective in a Crisis

No two crises are the same, and as such, there is no playbook or one-size-fits-all solution to how to respond. We do know, however, that the first few decisions you make are the most critical.

As marketers, we’ve spent countless hours and enormous amounts of money ensuring our brands and their messaging come across in the best possible light. We wear rose-tinted glasses. Everybody thinks their baby is beautiful, right? The truth is that online crises often expose the less attractive parts of the business behind the brand – the proverbial pig behind the lipstick. Because we wear rose-tinted glasses, perspective matters in moments of crisis perhaps more than anything else. If you respond to a customer in a public forum like a parent whose child has been insulted, you’re guaranteed to make the situation worse.

You have to ensure you have someone in the room, early in a crisis, who can maintain perspective and work with facts over feelings—someone who can read the label from the outside of the bottle. So often, a potential crisis is made a real crisis by kneejerk responses. We land up pouring paraffin on a tiny spark, and in so doing, broadcast our internal dysfunction on the most public platform possible. Half of the challenge for brands in social media is just avoiding making your complexity your customers’ problem!

The best way to unwind complexity is with sincerity. Often, a serious crisis is best addressed with a sincere apology rather than an emotional, defensive response.

The Power of a Sincere Apology

Ultimately, people buy from people. As a result, companies like Nike, Apple, Coca-Cola, and others have invested heavily in hiring brand ambassadors that embody their brand’s values.

CEOs and Founders have become global icons and influencers. But, unfortunately, it also means their actions face scrutiny, especially in an interconnected world. You only need to look at the events of recent years, where big multinational companies were all but forced to take a stand on the issues that define our time – like the Black Lives Matter movement or the Time Is Up movement.

Language matters, but actions matter even more. As an organisation’s leadership team gather to tackle a sizeable crisis, it is key to remember to remain human and empathise with the perspectives of this diverse audience. Online citizens are adept at reading between the lines, and they will quickly detect a half-hearted apology or a grudging acceptance of responsibility. Sincerity can play a decisive role in how quickly the crisis is resolved.

In our work, we remind clients that they should not make promises that seek to make the problem disappear in the short term. Because the Internet has a long memory and empty promises make the crisis worse. We always guide our clients towards the path of sincerity, truth over gloss, and it is a moment of delight when they see the impact of a sincere apology.  Empty promises and apologies make crises worse, not better.

Planning to Fail

Another way to prevent a crisis crippling your business is by expecting one to happen and planning accordingly. Rather be prepared for a crisis and be pleasantly surprised than fail to prepare for one and find yourself scrambling to adapt in your most vulnerable moment.

On the walls of our offices are maps that show people where to go in the case of a fire or emergency. Sadly we don’t treat brand crises the same way. Preparing for an online crisis is all about preparing your people.

As social media platforms have evolved, so has the role of the community manager. Some organisations expect their community managers (whether they’re internal or based at an agency partner) to be experts in content creation, copywriting, design, media planning, SEO, analytics, reporting, influencer engagement, customer service and crisis communication.

Expecting all of this from one person is a recipe for disaster.

On more than one occasion we’ve seen crises because junior community manager was not empowered or adequately trained to do their work. Tragically, when the dust settles, the powers that be often blame these junior individuals rather than acknowledging their failure to prepare adequately. The other “evil” that results from this is that if you are lucky enough to find a social media community management unicorn that can do all of these things, often they don’t have an established career path and land up leaving to a competitor with all your institutional knowledge and wisdom stuck in their brains – leaving you to start from scratch.

If social media is a strategic imperative for your brand, you need to acknowledge a few things.

  1. There are proactive and reactive functions – i.e. conversations you (the brand) initiate and conversations you respond to (initiated by your online audience).
  2. There are engagements that happen in social media you can plan for or anticipate, and engagements you can’t plan for or anticipate.

Combining these two truths produces a model for defining four strategic focus areas you should clearly define and resource for:

Planned proactive engagement – these are conversations you initiate and can anticipate. Planned proactive engagement encompasses all your scheduled, briefed calendar content. This is the function of an agency partner or internal content creation team, and the toughest decisions really are what content to promote and when.

Planned reactive engagement relates to all your first-line customer service responses – the sorts of responses that you would have outlined in a contact centre FAQ. This should be performed by a response-focused community manager, leveraging scripted, structured responses to ensure on-brand messaging and efficiency. You have no excuse to get these first two wrong! These are the basics.

Unplanned reactive engagement is the stuff you have nightmares about. These are complaints or mentions you could not have planned for or anticipated. If you are a brand that practices humility, critical thinking, and a fair dose of introspection, they should be minimal. It is a senior function, highly integrated into business and other functions like PR or corporate comms, and should be governed by a strict triage and escalation process. But, of course, the worse you are at this, the better for Victor and me, so I probably shouldn’t be telling you this.

The final quadrant is unplanned proactive engagement. This is the magic. This is Nando’s responding in a matter of minutes to a political announcement in a way only they can do. But we make the mistake of thinking this sort of engagement happens on the fly. It never does; it takes years of brand development, preparation, repetition and bravery to identify these moments and capitalise on them when they happen.

A failure to acknowledge the complexity of the opportunity for brands in social media is a breeding ground for crises. And while you might not be able to solve all of this overnight, there are some things you can do right now…

What To Do Next

The first thing is that it is no longer advisable to entrust your online presence wholly to agencies. If your leadership is not spending enough time online, then your organisation is at a higher risk of an online crisis because spending time online means that your core team understand what’s going on in the most dynamic media spaces today.

Just as the CEO and Chairperson used to spread the weekend newspapers over brunch so they could stay connected to the real world, so too does today’s leader have to spend time online. In short, organisations have to be prepared. At 48H, we have helped our clients stay calm and guide them through the nerve-wracking process of managing a crisis. One of the things we always advise against is underestimating the complexity of a crisis.

A single press statement may have sufficed to fend off the first hint of a crisis in the print world. But in today’s world, complexity is guaranteed. So once the crisis turns into a trending topic, we advise that a focused team is assembled, including subject experts, including well-trained spokespersons.

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