Crisis Planning: How to Publicly Respond to Business Problems
Wondering how to plan a public response to any issue?
To explore when and how businesses should respond publicly to a crisis, I interview Gini Dietrich.
More About This Show
The Social Media Marketing podcast is an on-demand talk radio show from Social Media Examiner. It’s designed to help busy marketers, business owners, and creators discover what works with social media marketing.
In this episode, I interview Gini Dietrich, a crisis management professional. She’s the founder and CEO of Spin Sucks, a site that helps businesses thrive with their public online communications. She also hosts the brand-new Spin Sucks podcast.
Gini explains how to handle a range of problems from online trolls to crises that threaten your reputation or revenue.
You’ll also find tips for preparing company leaders to speak transparently to the public and handling a crisis quickly and effectively.
Share your feedback, read the show notes, and get the links mentioned in this episode below.
Here are some of the things you’ll discover in this show:
What Is a Crisis?
In the past, PR agencies focused on crisis communications, and they were able to specialize in it because the crises were so few and far between. Today, somebody can be upset with a flight, a hotel stay, or a Crock-Pot killing a fictional TV character and take to Twitter, Facebook, or any social network where the issue can become blown out of proportion.
Today, everybody has a megaphone because of social media. Before, if you were upset with somebody or something, you told your neighbor, your friends, and your family, but your message was contained to about 30 people. Today, you can be upset about something and share it with thousands of people.
In this environment, it’s important to identify an issue versus a crisis. You have an issue when somebody is antagonizing you or pushing your buttons, but their comments aren’t going to go anywhere. On social media, issues are common and might be painful for a day or two or maybe even a week. But as long as the comments don’t cause reputation or money loss, it’s an issue, not a crisis.
A crisis has the potential to cause a stock price decline or a loss of customers, revenue, or reputation.
Issues and crises exist on a spectrum, where a troll creating an issue might be a level 1, and the money or reputation loss is a level 10. You need to think about how you respond to each level in between.
I ask whether the Cambridge Analytica story would be a level 10 crisis for Facebook. Gini says she would categorize that crisis as an 8 or 9 because the whole world is talking about that story, so Facebook has taken a reputational hit. However, after Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress, stock prices went up. Because Facebook isn’t losing money, the crisis isn’t a 10.
Listen to the show to hear Gini and me discuss how well Facebook handled the Cambridge Analytica crisis.
How to Handle Issues
Gini was recently in a Facebook group conversation with Jay Baer and Mitch Joel about whether to respond to trolls who leave negative, one-star book reviews on Amazon. Mitch Joel suggests not responding because his book won’t be for everybody. However, Jay Baer thinks you should respond to them in order to hug your haters and make them feel warm and fuzzy.
From a crisis perspective, Gini leans more toward Jay Baer’s perspective. Although you’re not necessarily going to change the mind of a troll, a negative reviewer, or the person who’s upset with you, your response can incentivize other people who see your response.
Because people can leave negative things online anywhere at any time, how you respond can mitigate the situation. Gini recommends leaving a professional, non-emotional response one time. If the troll comes back, you can say, “I’d love to have this conversation with you offline. Let’s connect via phone, email, or wherever.” However, don’t continue the conversation via social.
If the troll keeps coming back, just ignore them. You’re not going to change that person’s mind, and they may continue to come back. Your one response is for anyone else who reads the negative review. You want them to see that you’ve addressed the comment and tried to be professional about it. Let the rest of the world see that you’re the one who is rational.
I then ask how you predict whether an issue will blow over or escalate. Gini says you do this through your crisis communication planning, which involves looking at every scenario, how many people it will impact, and how you’ll respond. A troll is one person causing an issue; however, involvement of 100 people is a higher-level issue or crisis. Your planning helps you navigate these questions.
I share a story from the early days of Social Media Marketing World when a song we posted on YouTube was picked up by Gawker, which wrote an extremely negative review. Suddenly, the video of this song was trending in the top 10 on YouTube for all the wrong reasons, we were on VH1, and the media was reaching out wanting to talk to the employee who was part of the song.
After a lot of internal communications and talking to Gini, we decided to let the issue ride and not speak about it publicly because it was primarily people making fun of a piece of content that we produced.
Gini remembers how we discussed that this issue wouldn’t hurt our reputation or financial position. The people interested in this issue weren’t potential society members or event attendees, because a customer supports you. The outside world had seized on the issue for no real reason other than to make fun of social media marketers.
After letting the issue ride, it didn’t seem to hurt us at all. That’s an example in which talking about the issue would have helped it continue.
Listen to the show to hear more about how we handled negative reactions to the song.
Sometimes, an internal company issue like an employee’s behavior or the company’s financial problems become public issues, too. How you handle these issues depends in part on how transparent you are with your organization.
For instance, Buffer is known for opening up its doors and windows and letting everybody see everything. So if Buffer were having internal issues, like serious financial problems, Gini would recommend disclosing those problems because doing so is consistent with the way the company does business.
However, most companies aren’t as transparent as Buffer, and for those companies, the level of transparency they need depends on the situation.
As an example, an employee at Gini’s company was accused of plagiarizing somebody else’s content. After the employee assured Gini the content wasn’t plagiarized and Gini compared the two articles, Gini talked to the accuser and stood up for the employee. However, 2 months later, Gini discovered clear evidence that the employee actually did plagiarize the article.
After discovering this evidence, Gini decided to respond both privately and publicly. Working closely with her attorney to avoid unnecessary liability or other legal issues, Gini apologized to the accuser and let him know the employee had been let go. She also wrote a case study for her company’s blog that explained what happened. After Gini got in front of the problem, it completely went away.
Employees’ public commentary on hot-button issues via their personal platforms can also impact your business. Gini says how you handle an issue like this also depends on the specifics.
However, if an employee uses a personal page or social profile to discuss the company, the employee has crossed the line from the personal to the professional. You have to be careful with freedom of speech; you can’t fire somebody for a personal post on a social network. However, when the employee blends business and personal content, the issue becomes kind of blurry.
Generally, you start by talking to the employee. Remind them that because they post about the business on their personal profile, they represent the company, especially to customers and clients who are connected with the employee via their social profile. When an employee mixes business and personal content, they need to know their opinions can misrepresent the company.
To avoid confusion, you can insist employees add a note to their personal social bios that explicitly states their posts do not reflect the opinion of the company. When you ask employees to do this, you might also explain that the company avoids certain topics to remain inclusive of customers or clients with different viewpoints. Most people are pretty receptive to this request.
When an employee in a leadership position at the company or a thought leader your company works with makes a public mistake, the things your company does to manage its reputation when it’s not in a crisis help the company overcome these situations. When you consistently work on building and maintaining a good reputation, people are forgiving when you make a mistake. We are all human.
For instance, when Gini publicly stated that she made a gigantic mistake about the plagiarism issue, her company had fierce, engaged, loyal brand ambassadors who came to her defense.
Listen to the show for examples of hot-button issues employees might be discussing via their personal social media profiles.
Leadership and Company Transparency
Because marketers often want leaders of the company to be more transparent, I ask Gini for her thoughts about encouraging transparency. Gini says when she’s encouraging a new client to be more transparent, she starts by suggesting the executive or CEO walk around the business.
To illustrate, at a manufacturing company, the executive would actually walk the manufacturing floor and talk to the people who work there. For a virtual organization, the executive can pop into Zoom or Skype with somebody on your team once a week or once a day. At a retail location, the executive talks to employees who work on the floor.
When the company leader first starts doing that, people are self-conscious. However, this regular interaction allows the company leader to hear what challenges and issues employees are having in the tactical environment. The leader also becomes a much more transparent, approachable boss, and that’s what you want.
Gini adds that convincing a company leader to try this approach isn’t easy for internal employees. Typically, convincing a leader to be more transparent takes an outside counsel. People like experts better than whomever they have on their team, which is dumb but it’s how humans are. If you’re having trouble making this happen, try bringing in an expert from outside the company.
For one of Gini’s biggest clients, this transparency takes the form of lunch and learns. Every quarter, employees elect 10 colleagues to have lunch with the CEO. During this lunch, the employees and CEO can talk about anything and everything.
At first, these interactions between the CEO and employees were awkward because people either didn’t want to say anything or weren’t sure the CEO was open to hearing their challenges, issues, or ideas. However, after 5 years of the lunch program, people feel more comfortable. They discuss their ideas and challenges, and the CEO fixes them.
After the company leader starts talking to employees regularly in this way, these interactions foster transparency and authenticity in the company leader’s public communications, too. The idea is that the employee interactions help the leader become more familiar with talking about what’s happening in the company, whether that’s good or bad.
I mention my live video about Facebook algorithm changes on January 11. In this video, I shared my concerns that the changes could be the beginning of the end for exposure in the news feed. Although some critics thought I was fear-mongering, most people appreciated hearing from me because they respected the company.
BREAKING NEWS: Facebook Zero? Is this the end of the Facebook News Feed for pages? with Michael Stelzner
Posted by Social Media Examiner on Thursday, January 11, 2018
I never could have done that live video if I hadn’t been practicing and talking publicly about things transparently through our live show. That practice helped me share an opinion that resonated with our audience. And because I was able quickly to go live and talk about my honest feelings about this situation, that video was watched almost 600,000 times and resulted in press opportunities.
Gini says that such transparency is rewarded. Moreover, it makes great content and sets you apart from everyone else because you have something unique to say that not everybody else is saying.
Also, Gini emphasizes that there’s a difference between being transparent and being antagonistic. Transparency is sharing the opinion that the Facebook algorithm changes might actually be a bigger deal than we think. Being antagonistic could be lambasting Facebook and suggesting everyone delete their account.
Listen to the show to hear Gini and me discuss more about encouraging company leaders to be transparent.
You can’t develop your crisis plan when you’re in the middle of a crisis. It’s too late because you become emotional in the moment. You’ll respond differently than you would if you had a plan.
A crisis plan is like an insurance policy in two ways. First, as soon as you have a plan, Murphy’s Law says that you won’t have a crisis. More importantly, if you do have a crisis, you avoid paying a crisis firm a gazillion dollars you don’t have to manage the crisis or floundering through the crisis yourself. To create a plan, you develop scenarios, prepare messaging, rehearse and role-play how you’ll handle them, and revisit the plan every quarter.
Scenarios: To develop your crisis scenarios, involve a handful of people. A smaller business might involve customers, friends, advisors, mentors, and so on. A bigger company needs to involve people from different departments who can bring multiple viewpoints to the process.
For at least 2 hours, ask your group to brainstorm every single scenario that could possibly happen. These scenarios might include trolls who are after your company, public intoxication of the CEO, or extramarital affairs. You can use the experience of other businesses, too. For example, what’s your company’s version of Crock-Pot being accused of killing a fictional TV character?
After you develop your scenarios, organize them into levels from 1 to 10. After you assign each scenario a level, determine what escalates a scenario from level 1 to level 2, and so on. When your group is done with this phase, your team of people can go back to work.
Prepared messaging: Your company’s lead marketer or communicator needs to build an unpublished landing page or microsite that can be published the moment you become aware of a crisis. The messaging would be generic, and you can add details later. The generic messaging includes a note that you’re working on the issue, what you’re doing, and when people can expect an update.
Also, make sure you understand how Facebook Live works, so if you need to have your executives on video talking about things that are happening in a generic way, you can do that immediately.
For both the website and Facebook Live messaging, make sure your legal team preapproves what you’ll say so you don’t have to wait hours for legal approval when you’re in the midst of a crisis.
In case the crisis takes down your website or your main way of interacting with your audience, make sure you have different places where people can get information, based on whatever your crisis is. For instance, how often do people go to Facebook to complain that Twitter is down?
Role-play: Gini believes that role-playing is the most important part of developing your crisis plan. It also helps you manage your reputation and communicate transparently. In a role-play, you actually conduct an interview or pretend an angry mob is coming after you. This practice will truly prepare you for the crisis and take the emotion out of your response.
In other words, you want to identify the key people who’ll publicly respond in a crisis and rehearse what they’ll say in the event that a scenario actually occurs. Then, if the crisis occurs, the spokesperson is responding to the crisis based on the plan, not how they feel at the moment.
Another part of role-playing is learning to handle questions. To illustrate, when Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress, he knew how to respond to questions he didn’t have an answer to. His messaging was well-prepared, and nothing seemed to faze him.
Review: After you develop the whole plan, you review it once per quarter. The goal isn’t to repeat the entire process but to make sure the messaging is updated. Gini strongly recommends role-playing each quarter, because role-playing media interviews is beneficial even without a crisis. For example, role-play can improve live and recorded videos, speaking engagements, and so on.
Listen to the show to hear Gini and me discuss bringing in a professional to help with crisis management.
Discovery of the Week
To use Lately’s Consistency Scanner, enter your website and email into the online tool. It then displays your profile picture, bio, and naming scheme on Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram, and so on and gives you a grade on how consistent these elements are. With the report, you can easily see how to adjust your social profiles so they’re more consistent.
The Consistency Scanner is a free tool. After you try it, you receive a link to your report that you can access anytime.
Listen to the show to learn more about Lately’s Consistency Scanner and let us know how the scanner works for you.
Key takeaways mentioned in this episode:
- Find out more about Gini’s work at Spin Sucks.
- Learn about Gini’s new Spin Sucks podcast.
- Discover how a fictional character’s death created a crisis for Crock-Pot.
- Watch Mark Zuckerberg testify before Congress.
- Compare how Mitch Joel and Jay Baer respond to trolls.
- Explore how Buffer practices radical transparency about the company.
- Read Gini’s blog post about discovering that an employee plagiarized an article.
- Watch our live video from the day Facebook announced major algorithm changes.
- Discover how Facebook Live works.
- Try the Consistency Scanner from Lately.
- Watch our weekly Social Media Marketing Talk Show on Fridays at 10 AM Pacific on Crowdcast or tune in on Facebook Live.
- Download the 2018 Social Media Marketing Industry Report.
What do you think? What are your thoughts on crisis planning? Please share your comments below.