In the age of social media, startups need to be on their toes to tackle a public relations crisis

By Tamanna Mishra|3rd Nov 2017
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Crisis communication has a strangely intimidating aura around it. It is often an ‘urgent whispers’ galore, with words like “war rooms” and “drawer statements” thrown around with the rightful reverence they deserve. I will tell you this – as a senior PR and communication professional, a crisis communication project can make or break your career. When done right, it is exciting and perhaps one of the most interesting additions to your resume. But the tables can turn with just one wrong move. What makes crisis communication that much more exciting and intimidating in our times is the ease with which everyone will have an opinion on whatever has been insinuated about your brand.

A couple of decades back, the crisis hit the headlines the next morning - since daily TV news and newspapers were the only sources of information. Now? 24-hour news channels and dime a dozen social media posts every minute ensures that even before you find out what went wrong, that 20-year-old someone sitting in a faraway town has uninstalled your app, given you a low rating everywhere on social media, tweeted his disgust, written an op-ed, posted a video, and even participated in a primetime debate. All of this even before you could utter the word “crisis”.

Image: Shutterstock

Image: Shutterstock

There is no such thing as a “small issue” anymore. We live in a world where every day there is a new outrage on Twitter. You could have made a bad ad, a troll may have followed you on Twitter, or a company with a similar sounding name may have goofed up (remember the Snapchat, Snapdeal blitz). Quick and unreasonably exaggerated reactions have become the order of the day. These are interesting times for brands and crisis communication professionals.

While traditional and large organizations have large PR agencies and dedicated manpower at their disposal to manage crisis, startups don’t. It might sound like a problem, but in my experience it really is not. Without the red tape of approvals, hierarchies and legal jargons, startups have the ability to stay agile and authentic during crisis. What they do with this agility makes all the difference.

Preparedness is a good first step

Once you have a semblance of a business, it is time to find some bandwidth to work on a crisis communication strategy. Not having a crisis on the anvil is the best time to work on it, because you can think about it with a clear head and without any sense of urgency.

What does crisis preparedness mean? Simply put, it is a laundry list of your organization’s potential PR vulnerabilities and your brand’s response to them. Most PR agencies and senior independent PR professionals have various vulnerability assessment models. But the best place to start is within the team. I usually recommend a brainstorm session with senior and mid-management employees to assess the startup’s vulnerabilities. Often, small organizations think that they don’t quite need crisis preparedness because their work is not “big” enough.

Think that food tech is a simple, easy, joyful business to be in? Sure, for most part. But your app could be down on the night of an India-Pakistan cricket match; your social media post or some of your leaders could be publicly tone-deaf, sexist, or racist. Your delivery boy could throw a tantrum in front of a customer. Or an ex-employee could communicate his angst against your processes as it happened with Swiggy. In the new world order, these are far from “small issues” and could blow up in your face. If you start your journey on the back foot due to a reputation issue, raising funds and growing your business will be that much harder. That is why vulnerability assessment is a crucial aspect of startup crisis communication.

Once you have your vulnerabilities listed, consider the next steps. Is it something you can fix through an operational change? Would a round of professional training for your front line staff help? Basically, your team needs to understand what they need to do to make sure that avoidable operational issues don’t turn into full-blown crises.

Sometimes, operational fixes may not work. What you need then is a strong communication strategy. This includes potential situations and your response to each of them. Traditionally, these included crisis manuals, FAQs and drawer statements to issue to the press. But now, your employees too could be caught in the eye of the storm, thanks to social media. If there is no policy to dictate their response in such times, you can’t possibly blame them for responding in ways that might work for them but may not for your organization or brand as a whole. Take note of it and draft a comprehensive crisis response manual for employees before things start to go downhill.

All facts, no feelings is a good way to manage crisis

Startup founders and employees are often personally invested in their brand’s reputation. If something goes wrong or the insinuations are not factually correct, it is easy to lose your objectivity and lash out. One word of advice – don’t. Measured response is essential, but does that mean you must sound like a robot? No. Startups have the ability to humanize and personalize their response even as they state their side of the story. Focus on facts but sound as human as you can.

Speed is important too. Brands no longer have the luxury of time when it comes to crisis response. But that does not mean you react immediately to every negative tweet or review. Pick your battles and respond honestly and authentically. Made a mistake? Apologise and reassure your stakeholders about all that you are doing to correct your mistake. Factually incorrect insinuations? Counter quickly with true facts.

Have a single point of contact

In the wake of a crisis, it is perfectly fine to gather the troops and brainstorm your response. But a single person must execute it. You don’t want inconsistent tonality, nor do you want differing opinions and responses. Even when two people are saying the same thing, their delivery, choice of words and tonality can open a can of worms and encourage speculation. Be aligned internally and ensure that you have only one voice to manage messaging and response to all external parties including social media and journalists.

End it well

If you think that your PR crisis will blow over, you are probably right. The speed at which news cycles change now, there is always a slim chance that people will remember your issue after a day or two. But what they will remember is how you handled it. If you made any commitments, follow through. Also remember to have an internal debrief once the crisis has blown over. You want to ask yourselves how well prepared you were to handle the situation, how people performed in their assigned roles, if you need more handholding and crisis training, and what you learned from this crisis to manage the next one better.

Crisis doesn’t always have to be a threat to your organization or brand. Sometimes, it brings forth an opportunity to showcase your mettle, your engagement with the community at large, and connect authentically and emotionally with your external stakeholders. While the power to turn the situation to your benefit may not always lie with you, remember that it is worth the effort.

Read Also: Are you PR-proof to weather a crisis?

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