Between COVID and cancel culture, natural disasters, and civil unrest
In today’s digital world, brands have a lot to consider when responding to crises, tragedies, and inequality.
Here, I’ll explain everything you need to know about social media crisis communication and emergency management.
What You’ll Learn:
- What roles brand play in a crisis
- The framework for social media crisis management
- How to prepare responses in advance
- Why to avoid capitalizing off of crises
- Pausing your social media calendar
- The importance of fact-checking
Understand the Role Brands Should Play in a Crisis
A recent report by Crisp found that roughly two-thirds of customers say they’re unlikely to shop with a brand after an inadequate crisis response.
90% of those consumers say they’re likely to shop with brands that respond well to crises, and 53% say they expect brands to respond to emergencies within an hour.
What’s more, 59% of customers expect crisis responses to come straight from the CEO.
According to another study by Morning Consult, most Americans believe that healthcare workers, government agencies, and other essential workers like grocery store employees play the most significant role in helping society get through the pandemic.
While this report is specific to the COVID-19 crisis, it reveals something interesting about what people want from brands.
Researchers found that most of the population also holds CEOs at least partially accountable for helping Americans navigate this state of emergency.
A special report of the Edelman Brand Trust Barometer backs this up: people want to hear from brands in times of crisis. And not only that, consumers want brands to step in and help out.
Here’s what respondents say that they’d most like to see from brands during hard times.
- 85% want brands to solve their problems
- 80% want brands to take on society’s problems
- 69% want brands to act as dependable providers
- 64% expect brands to serve as a reliable source of information
- 63% say brands should act as protectors
What is a crisis?
It turns out it’s subjective.
59% of the Crisp report respondents said that ethical misconduct and CEO misconduct both qualify as a company crisis. 64% say mistreating employees is a crisis, while 58% believe that mistreating customers meets the criteria.
Of course, there are issues like data breaches, sexual harassment, and racism that many would consider crises. And then there are things like natural disasters, recessions, and yes, pandemics outside of a brand’s control.
Still, whether these scenarios are official crises or not–they aren’t good for brands.
For more insight into how brands should respond to COVID-19, I’ve put together a 12-step checklist. Check it out here.
A Basic Framework for Social Media Crisis Management
Make social media and crisis communication part of your brand guidelines.
Here’s the thing: acting fast in the face of crisis is critical.
An emerging crisis can have ripple effects that extend well beyond the incident itself and the subsequent fallout. Without a plan, you’ll lose a lot of ground.
While it’s easy to see why speed is crucial when it comes to customer service crises or data breaches, many brands don’t realize that rapid response is essential for external factors as well.
It allows you to get ahead of potential damage by issuing the perfect on-brand response that strikes the right tone with your audience.
- Who are you as a brand?
- What does your audience need based on the situation?
- How will you craft a message that speaks to the situation at hand?
Your answers, of course, will shape your responses.
For issues like Black Lives Matter, immigration reform, gender equality, climate change, and ethical labor practices, brands should define where they stand.
Ideally, these types of issues will work their way into your company’s mission and values.
That way, employees already know how to address current events/movements in brand communications.
One example is Gillette’s #MeToo-inspired ad, which challenged men to “be better.”
While the campaign sparked controversy, a Gillette spokesperson told NPR the company that they stand by the campaign.
The company said that today’s brands must take a stand when it comes to the issues they and their consumers care about.
Alternatively, if you’re responding to a social media gaffe like this Red Cross throwback, your “brand identity” will help you determine whether it makes sense to embrace humor or strike a more serious tone.
As you consider your communications strategy, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does your brand’s voice matter right now?
- What can you add to the conversation?
- Can you help?
- Can you donate time, products, or money to support the cause?
- Does your brand have a unique connection with its audience that can be used to raise funds to support those impacted by the crisis?
- If none of the above apply, consider what you can do to provide distraction or relief from a painful situation.
Instead of wasting time waiting for the green light from management or deliberating on how to best move forward, employees know what to do and how to respond when their decisions ruffle a few feathers.
Prepare Responses in Advance
While sure, no one knew how to respond when coronavirus spread across the globe; there are many situations you could kind of “template out.”
For example, you might create guidelines that dictate what an acceptable response to a celebrity death or a natural disaster might look like.
That said, it’s worth discussing how you’ll participate in social media initiatives like #MeToo or #BLM—or if you’ll participate.
Case in point, as Black Lives Matter protests started in response to George Floyd’s death, there was an Instagram campaign where influencers, celebrities, and brands replaced their profile pics with black squares in solidarity.
It didn’t take long for the backlash to hit social media, with critics claiming that the squares were blacking out digital space that could be used to further the cause.
The other issue with these types of campaigns is it’s easy for brands to participate without doing any real work—something that customers can sniff out from miles away.
Avoid Capitalizing on Crisis
This one should be a no-brainer, but I have to bring it up. 9/11 jokes, humorous takes on coronavirus—probably not a great idea.
A few notable “don’ts:”
Here’s an example from Crocs meant to “honor” David Bowie:
And another example that Cinnabon posted in the wake of Carrie Fisher’s passing.
Avoid using official hashtags to express support or take part in communal mourning—it’s probably the wrong time for news-jacking.
Even 12 years later, in 2013, AT&T’s use of the 9/11 #neverforget hashtag to promote a new phone drew some severe criticism.
Here are just a few of the responses, courtesy of Buzzfeed.
That same year, American Express posted the following tribute and received a much different response.
The key difference between the two tributes is, Amex had the good sense to avoid pushing any credit cards or small business accounts, while AT&T put the new Blackberry front and center.
As Jay Baer puts it in a recent article, tragedies aren’t about you. He advises brands to resist all urges to include product shots and promotional content–and even multiple hashtags–referencing a disaster, crisis, or movement.
Less obvious is making sure your content doesn’t appear to be milking a tragedy or crisis for cold, hard cash.
Here’s an example of how ASOS promoted (chainmail?) face masks before many places even shut down.
If you’re talking about the “great work you do,” be prepared to show receipts.
In this example, Apple CEO, Tim Cook, explains exactly what they’re doing to help medical workers secure masks and face shields.
Stop the Content Calendar
Many brands schedule their social media posts several weeks in advance, which means there’s no guarantee that a significant crisis could strike just as your big campaign is about to go live.
That said, if you have content waiting in the wings and disaster hits, your best bet is to hit the breaks and postpone scheduled content for when things start to return to normal.
While scheduled content isn’t intentionally tone-deaf, it can be just as damaging as trying to blatantly cash-in on disaster a la ASOS.
A recent example of this is Geico’s high-five commercial, which ran back in March 2020 just as the coronavirus was making its way around the globe.
While the commercial isn’t necessarily offensive by most standards, this Twitter user makes a good point: “it makes it look like Geico doesn’t care.”
The lesson here is, you should hit “pause” on all campaigns and take some time to create new resources that address the situation.
Here’s another example from Geico, where they get it right. Their post focuses on creating a safe, kid-friendly backyard, addressing quarantine directly without being exploitative.
The content takes Geico’s expertise and applies it in a relevant and useful way.
Another critical component in social media crisis management is trust.
When a crisis is unfolding, information changes at a break-neck pace. Avoid posting information that hasn’t yet been fact-checked.
Posting incorrect information about a shooting in-progress, tropical storm, or global pandemic feeds into the public panic.
Back to the point, I made above—consider what role your brand plays before attempting to be an authority on the emergency.
In the case of a natural disaster, do you have the authority to guide people to safety?
Can you point them toward relief shelters or other essential resources?
If not, you’re probably not the best source of information. Nobody asked for an e-commerce brand to weigh in on staying safe in the event of a hurricane or a wildfire.
If we’re talking about the pandemic, avoid talking home remedies and let the CDC and other public health agencies take this.
Otherwise, some members of the public may get the idea that drinking bleach can prevent illness.
You can do your part by sharing or retweeting information from reputable resources to help spread the word.
You might also team up with a charity to raise funds in the wake of a tragedy.
In this example, from the Vans Warped Tour and the American Red Cross, the focus is less on the brand and more on leveraging Vans’ platform to get younger people to donate blood.
If your brand holds a lot of weight with the younger crowd, this type of partnership is a great way to use your platform for good.
It also provides the secondary benefit of maintaining brand visibility while at the same time building loyalty and trust.
Brands and crises can make an awkward pair, but it doesn’t have to be weird.
A few things I’d like to end on:
- Consider how you feel about what’s happening. How are your employees, family, and friends coping with the situation? What about others in your industry? Speak to those concerns and respond to crises like you’re a real person.
- Participate in the discussion as a community member first, brand second. Look toward the recommendations in my Reddit marketing post for more on how to approach this.
- Avoid using crisis hashtags for anything other than critical resources, aid, or how to stay safe. It not only makes you look bad, but it can also prevent people from finding the information they need—all to sell a few T-shirts or cable subscriptions.
- There’s no reason for brands to publicly mourn a celebrity unless they had a relationship with them. Avoid hijacking the RIP threads and respectfully keep your head down.
Ultimately, the real secret to weathering the storm–be it a pandemic, reckoning, or a terrorist attack is approaching social media crisis management with authenticity and empathy.