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    The complete crisis management guide for marketing leaders

    It’s the scenario no business wants to face. A cybersecurity attack or reputational crisis that can turn a normal working day into a sink or swim scenario. 

    A good number of companies aren’t prepared for a crisis like this. However, an effective crisis communication strategy can help your company plan for a worst case scenario and emerge with your reputation intact. 

    While we hope any crisis management plan will remain in storage and never used—preparation is key. This comprehensive guide to crisis management will provide you with actionable tips on how to build a strategy to respond to any crisis efficiently and keep customers informed. 

    Table of contents

    What is crisis management?

    Crisis management is the process of mitigating a sudden or significant incident, which can have a negative impact on a business. The goal is to limit the effect of the incident, keep the business running smoothly and learn from the response to help with future crises.

    The complete crisis management guide for marketing leaders

    If a crisis isn’t handled quickly, it can cause widespread damage. For example, an unresolved data breach can lead to financial loss for customers. This can snowball into reputational damage for the company that impacts revenue and customer trust. 

    An internal crisis management strategy can help a company resolve an incident—and keep its reputation intact.

    Types of crises to manage

    Business crises come in all shapes and sizes. A natural disaster can hit supply chains and disrupt customer orders. A public health crisis can put worker safety at risk. A reputational crisis can damage your standing with loyal customers and negatively impact brand reputation.

    The types of crises an organization faces fall into two baskets: 

    • Self-inflicted. These are crises caused by someone or something within an organization. Think of a customer support person offering terrible service that leads to an angry social post. Or, an employee accidentally clicking on a phishing link in an email, leading to a data breach. These crises can be minimized (or even avoided) with training, internal strategies and protocols. 
    • External events. These crises are harder to stop as they are usually outside an organization’s control. Think of natural disasters, online rumors or network hacks. Still, a solid crisis management strategy can dampen any negative impact. 

    Here are five typical crises an organization should prepare to respond to. 

    Cybersecurity breaches

    A cybersecurity breach is when a company is targeted in a ransomware attack or data hack. These breaches usually have malicious intent, where the hacker(s) gain access to sensitive customer information like credit card details and addresses. 

    In October 2023, a hacker breached 23andMe’s database and stole information about millions of customers and threatened to publish the leaked data. 

    A tweet talking about a 23andMe cybersecurity breach

    The hack was a PR nightmare for 23andMe. Eventually, the company required all users to use two-step verification and reset their password. 

    The incident had a knock-on effect. Other DNA test companies like MyHeritage and Ancestry followed suit and implemented two-factor authentication to avoid a similar breach and PR crisis.

    Public health crisis

    Public health crises are classed as an “external” crisis. 

    When COVID-19 hit in early 2020, businesses had to adapt operations overnight. A Gallup study found companies with crisis management teams in place tailored their response to the public health crisis depending on employees’ location. 

    Having a crisis management plan in place helped company leaders meet regularly and communicate any new public health information to employees. In addition to cutting operations to critical functions only, these organizations moved tasks to unaffected regions and urged employees not to panic. 

    Natural disasters

    Natural disasters like storms, hurricanes, flooding and tsunamis are beyond the control of any business, but they can still negatively impact operations and reputation.

    In 1998, residents in eastern Ontario and Quebec were hit by an ice storm referred to as one of the worst natural disasters in Canadian history. Twenty-five people died and damages grew to around $5.4 billion. Businesses in the area were left without electricity and heating, and work slowed to a halt for nearly five weeks.

    Damage from the 1998 Ontario ice storm

    Suzanne Bernier was a crisis management consultant for the Ontario government during the disaster and talked about the experience on Reddit. Alongside coordinating crisis response communications, she also worked with other departments to manage the emergency. 

    Financial crisis

    Financial crises can be caused by bad internal management and external factors like market fluctuations or lackluster economies. These crises can threaten the stability of a business and in severe cases—lead to insolvency or bankruptcy. In this scenario, an organization must have a strong contingency plan and maintain ongoing communication with customers for transparency and to avoid panic. 

    In 2023, business owners were hit by the second-biggest bank failure in U.S. history when Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) collapsed, seemingly overnight. 

    The crisis began when the bank issued a press release to say it wanted to raise cash—a statement Fast Company labeled “the press release from hell”. It had the opposite effect and customers rushed to the bank to take out their money. 

    People lining up outside Silicon Valley Bank

    By the time SVB spoke out that afternoon, it was too late—customers had withdrawn $42 billion in a single day. The bank had a negative balance and the government had to guarantee deposits. Just three weeks after the disaster, Silicon Valley Bank was acquired by First Citizens Bank. 

    Reputation crisis

    Reputational damage can impact everything from consumer confidence to revenue and stock prices. These crises occur from incidents like product recalls or poorly executed campaigns that dent consumer trust.  

    Case in point, the Chipotle E Coli outbreak in 2015. Sixty cases of E Coli poisoning linked to Chipotle were reported to the CDC across 14 states. The knock to the company’s reputation led to a quick drop in consumer confidence. Not surprisingly, it also hit Chipotle sales and its stock price dropped by 34%

    The company responded swiftly. It publicly apologized and took full responsibility for the outbreak and shut down stores nationwide to implement new food safety testing and training programs. Chipotle also hired a film crew to spend two weeks in its kitchens to film a campaign called ‘Behind the Foil’, which gave customers a sneak peek at how food is prepared.

    Scenes from Chipotle's "Behind the Foil" promotional YouTube video

    The turnaround worked. By 2019, Chipotle was the second highest performing stock on the S&P 500. 

    Stages of crisis management

    Effective crisis management relies on early detection, flexibility and adapting communication to fit the incident. There are six stages you should consider: 

    Pre-crisis

    A thorough crisis management plan is an integral part of avoiding self-inflicted crises and minimizing the impact of external events. This plan can be used to train every employee to respond to a crisis and lessen the damage to your company and customers. 

    Pre-crisis preparation involves:

    • Understanding your customers and potential crises your businesses is at risk from (self-inflicted and external)
    • Creating and monitoring a company-wide crisis management plan
    • Appointing employees to your crisis management team with specific roles and responsibilities
    • Conducting training (like mock crisis responses) to test the appointed team. These mock exercises will ensure your team is capable of carrying out the crisis management plan successfully

    Also, consider having a predefined communications package for emergencies. These include:

    • Templates with pre-loaded information for press releases and social media announcements can give your team a head start in executing timely communication. 
    • Saved Replies are perfect for answering common customer questions quickly. 
    • Automated chatbots keep every communication during a crisis on-brand. Chatbots can mitigate the early stages of crisis communication and leave your team to navigate crisis identification and next steps. 

    If your company doesn’t have a crisis communication plan in place, use Sprout’s template for building a crisis management plan to get started. 

    Crisis identification

    If a crisis does land on your company’s doorstep—assess it immediately. 

    Start by determining what you know about the crisis so far, what caused it and how many customers will be impacted. Also ascertain how much of the company it will impact.

    Crises move fast and new information can trickle in every hour (or minute). This basic information will help your crisis management team shape its response and next steps. Don’t wait to know everything before issuing a response and starting damage control. 

    Assessment and evaluation

    Go deeper to gather information about the possible impacts of the crisis. Think about your customers and how to communicate with them effectively. Answers questions like: 

    • Who? Who are the customers you should be talking to right now? Who is the person on your crisis management team in charge of organizing these comms? 
    • When? When will we announce what we know about the situation? (Hint: sooner is always better)
    • How? How will the company share information? Will it be short social media posts or a more detailed press release? 
    • Where? What platform should the team use to make updates and announcements? 
    • Why? Is the crisis significant enough to share information publicly on social media, or should you talk to customers through other platforms like email? If so, why? 

    These answers will help your crisis management team understand who to prioritize and what platforms to communicate information to customers with. 

    Response

    Respond to a crisis quickly, firmly and according to your management plan. Your response should also be measured. 

    For example, taking ownership of a situation by apologizing should only be done after some due diligence. Any statement issued should include next steps and positions if you are certain they will be followed. False promises lead to bad publicity and can make the situation worse. 

    Release information as soon as it’s available. For example, if your company experiences a cyber security breach, don’t wait to update your customers. Reiterate the measures your company is taking to mitigate the situation (like updating security procedures) each time to remind them your priority is safeguarding their information. 

    Monitor customer communication online and reply to any social media comments as soon as possible. This brings us to our next point.

    Brand reputation

    Focus on your brand reputation the second a crisis starts, as it can do lasting damage to your brand. Monitor how customers (and the wider public) are responding to your brand from the earliest stage of the crisis and adapt your strategy accordingly. For example, if customers are posting on X (formerly known as Twitter) about the lack of transparency, consider releasing a statement or social media post with more information. 

    Thankfully, monitoring brand reputation is easier than pressing refresh on your social feed every 30 seconds. Sprout Social has message spike alerts to notify you of an influx of incoming messages and mentions.

    Sprout Social's dashboard shows message spike detection. In the image you can see the Smart Inbox and a message alert that reads: We started detecting a spike 5 minutes ago.

    Your crisis management team can use this information to respond to posters quickly inside the Smart Inbox before these complaints turn into a larger problem. 

    Messages inside Sprout Social's Smart Inbox where you can reply to a message directly

    Learning and adaptation

    The final step of the crisis management process is reflecting on what went right (and wrong) to improve processes for next time.

    Ask yourself: 

    • What parts of the crisis management plan were executed correctly?
    • What were the main challenges and how can they be better planned for?
    • Did the crisis management team have the training/plans needed to succeed?
    • What communications and platforms worked best with our audience?

    These answers will help your team spot any wins (and weaknesses) and give you a clear understanding of what changes must be made to the current crisis plan. 

    Want some help? Use our crisis retrospective worksheet to guide you through the post-crisis process and sharpen your strategy. 

    Now you know the stages of a crisis, let’s look at some crisis management strategies to use in a real-life scenario. 

    5 crisis management strategies for your brand

    Every crisis is different. A solid crisis management strategy and how prepared your company is to deal with each scenario can make all the difference.  

    Here are five ways to build one to protect your brand. 

    Build a crisis management team

    A crisis management team is (arguably) the most important element of any crisis management strategy. It’s your first line of defense when a crisis hits. 

    To create one, start by building out your sub-team with employees who are comfortable managing people and executing plans. Think about what bases you need to cover (like communications/PR, IT, human resources, operations) and appoint a sub-team leader for each area. 

    Tasks for this step:

    Build a crisis management team and appoint leaders for each department (social media, legal, HR, etc). And nominate a crisis manager who will coordinate the response and delegate tasks during a crisis. 

    Communicate proactively

    Your crisis team must decide how the first piece of communication will be phrased, as it will set the tone for the entire response. Let’s imagine your company is hit by a data breach. If your crisis management team prepared a template response during pre-crisis planning, it’s time to use it. 

    Here’s an example: 

    “(Your company name) values your business and understands how important the privacy of your information is. During the early morning hours of this morning, our servers experienced a possible data security incident and your information may be involved. We have opened an investigation and will be in constant communication to update you as it progresses.”

    Then, think about next steps. During the first crucial hours of a crisis, the team should release more official information, like a press release, which can be used by mainstream media. The goal here is to reach any customers who missed the initial response to the crisis. Identify the platforms customers are most active on to spread your message more effectively. If your team needs to be trained on other communication styles like press releases and conferences, organize it now. 

    It’s also important to check if there are regular social media posts or email scheduled to go out. If so, consider pausing them until the crisis is under control. Either do this manually or use Sprout’s “Pause All” button in the publishing settings to do it with one click:

    Sprout Social's pause all feature will stop social media posts

    It’s also important to hit pause on any non-crisis communication/campaigns until the crisis is resolved.

    Collaborate internally with the crisis team

    Update the wider company (outside of the crisis management team) on what has happened and how to communicate about the crisis. 

    These employees must understand there is a crisis management team in place to handle communication. They should not talk to the media or respond to comments on social media without authorized consent. This is to ensure every communication from your company is inline with the overall crisis strategy. 

    Boost efficiency with a crisis management tool

    Monitoring your social media before, during and after a crisis is key. It helps your team understand your customers and how well your crisis management plan performed. 

    Certain social media analytics like performance analysis and audience insights can track engagement around crisis messaging. Using metrics like reach, clicks and views, it’s easier to spot which posts and platforms worked best to get information out to your audience. 

    The right crisis management tool also helps with:

    • Analyzing brand sentiment. With sentiment analysis, you can automatically monitor if the sentiment expressed towards your brand is positive, negative or neutral. Set alerts based on keywords or for a particular crisis so you never miss a post.
    • Managing customer messages. Your social networks and customer care inbox will be inundated with customer messages during a crisis. Tools like Sprout’s Smart Inbox enables your crisis team to respond across multiple platforms and escalate important messages. The Collision Detection tool even stops one person working on a response to improve efficiency.

    For common questions, your crisis team can also configure a simple Sprout chatbot to save time. While it’s not a replacement for human empathy during a crisis, it takes care of simple questions so your team can work on more pressing issues. 

    Example configuration of a Sprout Social chatbot where you can build the flow based on the responses you want

    A crisis management plan can save your brand from disaster

    Crises can be overwhelming without a strategy, and the scenarios we discussed in this guide are very real possibilities.

    A crisis management strategy allows your company to take control of any crisis the moment it hits. Crisis team leaders will have a blueprint on how to handle different situations so employees stay on the same page with communication and messaging. This pre-planning ensures every press release, social media post and email to customers follows your management strategy. 

    You can also use crisis management tools to store pre-made templates and plans to help your team respond quickly to any crisis to protect your brand reputation. Start tracking customer sentiment and streamlining communication during a crisis with a free 30-day trial of Sprout Social.

    The post The complete crisis management guide for marketing leaders appeared first on Sprout Social.

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