Crisis communications in-depth: Response protocol, playbook provide crisis insurance, assurance

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Crisis communications in-depth is Justin Case You Were Wondering’s five-day deep dive into different aspects of the crisis communications discipline in a PR 2.0 world.

You can almost guarantee it with the same certainty you can say the sun will come out tomorrow. Start discussing crisis/issues management with a group of corporate communicators and someone is going to ask, sooner or later: “How do you know when to respond to a complaint about your brand?”

It’s a good question. Really good, because there are too many people today that just do social media and don’t set any parameters. Just do it is a great motto for Nike, not so much for social media. In fact, I was guilty of the “just do it” mentality at a previous job. We began monitoring Twitter for customer complaints and started responding to anyone – without doing much research into the person at all – if they said our brand “sucks.” And believe me, there were plenty of people who said that and no more.

Brands were in an awful situation when it came to customer complaints via social media as recently as two years ago. The public would almost always line up behind the complainer and the company rarely had the social and internal infrastructure in place to manage the issue that was raised.

But today, as social media evolves, brands often get more benefit of the doubt. Especially if they show they’re listening. Where companies still get into trouble is when they blatantly ignore. Just ask Etsy. Ignoring often comes out of fear or lack of preparation. But a response protocol and playbook can make brands feel well prepared for most online scenarios that come their way.

Response protocol
So what is a response protocol? Usually, it’s a series of questions – a flow chart if you will – a company can ask based on a developing online scenario. The answers to those questions dictate how and if the company should respond to a specific compliant or online issue. That way your company isn’t trying to respond to every person that says you suck.

One of the keys to remember is there’s no universal response protocol because different issues pose different threats, or lack of threats, to different brands. A response protocol should be drilled so the communications team can discuss different scenarios and how a customer complaint about topic A or a negative blog post about topic B might impact the brand. In addition, a company’s influencers need to be factored into the response protocol. For example, if your organization researches influencers (e.g. media, bloggers, community managers) and does outreach to build relationships with those folks, that should be called out because it may make sense to engage those allies to help tell your brand’s side of the story if the issue is serious enough.

A well thought out crisis/issues plan is going to involve different representatives across different departments of the organization. Some may feel very comfortable interacting online via social networks or with the communities they manage. But without a doubt, some are going to be new to social media and the additional platforms that need to be considered when managing a crisis situation these days. Those people, my friend and colleague, Lauren Fernandez, taught me, need a playbook.

The playbook is literally what it sounds like – a depiction of all the steps each role should take when it comes to working through a crisis online. It’s a holistic view of different issues and how those different managers will come together across departments to manage them, who is responsible for listening and engaging through specific online channels and the context that needs to be considered around making those responses (e.g. etiquette, timing, etc.).

You might think about it this way – you know those porcelain dolls you had as a kid where one fit inside another that fit inside another? Well, the response protocol is your smallest doll. It fits inside the playbook and helps decide who a company engages with and how they engage. Then the playbook itself is the middle doll. It identifies the brand representatives – often called community managers – for all necessary online touchpoints and outlines the process he/she should follow when an issue arises in his/her purview. Then the biggest doll is the crisis plan. The playbook and response protocol fit inside it and may have peer components that outline offline components of the crisis. It may even make the most sense to build your playbook and response protocol to cover online and offline response.

Either way, your crisis plan is the master document that includes all the contacts from different teams and agencies that play a role in crisis response. It should also highlight different levels of issues your brand distinguishes between and what differentiates between those levels, complete with examples.

A crisis plan is your overall insurance against any incident that might jeopardize the reputation of your brand and negatively impact your employees, shareholders, customers and community. A response protocol and playbook are integral types of insurance – home, life, car – that make up your portfolio.

Whether you like that comparison better or the dolls analogy sticks in your mind, every day your brand goes without insurance is a day your employees, shareholders, customers and community go unprotected as it relates to your organization. And if someone asked you whether or not you really needed insurance, you’d probably just laugh at them right? Such a preposterous question. But sure as the sun will come up tomorrow, there are companies all over the world that aren’t insured when it comes to crisis communications and don’t know how or who would respond if something happened tomorrow.

  • Is your organization prepared for a crisis?
  • Do you have a response protocol and playbook?
  • How does your company drill or walk through the different parts of your crisis plan?

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