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Managing crisis communications in a connected world

The potential for crisis is always looming but when crisis hits, is your agency ready to make sure a brand’s message cuts through the noise?

The potential for crisis is always looming but when crisis hits, is your agency ready to make sure a brand’s message cuts through the noise?

When Australian teenager Matt Corby asked “When is a foot 11 inches?” via a photo he posted on Facebook of a Subway sandwich that came up an inch short on his tape measure, he had 131,000 likes within just a few days. Subway was left facing worldwide negative publicity and a batch of copy-cat lawsuits, leaving the world’s largest sandwich maker with a fully baked crisis served not so piping hot.

sub sandwich

When a crisis, big or small, hits a company, the first question on everyone’s lips asked with an air of sneering sympathy is “Who is their PR agency?” From the moment the crisis strikes, the PR agency’s reputation is as much at stake as the company’s. And in a hyper-connected world such as the one we live in today, crises are just waiting to erupt and spread faster than wildfire.

The digital era has brought with it an entirely new set of challenges to tackle crises. Today, companies are finding the need to arm themselves with quick ways and means to address issues that have the potential to become instant global nightmares. The question isn’t whether or not one will experience a communications crisis. It’s when.


Consider these examples in the very recent past – Nestle (Maggi Noodles in India), Target Corporation in the US (cyber-attacks), the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines aircraft, the Air Asia crash… Crises are leaving brands and reputations in shreds. In today’s environment of hyper-connectivity and instant gratification, the speed with which a crisis can arise and explode is jaw-dropping. Therefore it is extremely important for communications teams to recognize patterns and be prepared with resources to keep up with the velocity of external voices to be able to respond to all stakeholders.  The speed and quality of a company’s response is what will make all the difference.

The need for a dynamic pre-determined crisis communication plan can’t be emphasized more. It’s imperative to have one in place that details how to successfully communicate to the media, customers, government, and key stakeholders in different scenarios using digital and other available platforms.

Even a couple of hours to prepare and issue a press statement can be too long, no matter the internal circumstances, because today even 30 minutes is a lifetime. Companies need to be prepared to respond with urgency in the context of today’s instant communications. In a 30 minute window, the team needs to post a blog, tweet it out, and expose instantly to hundreds or even thousands of stakeholders who can then retweet to their communities instantaneously, before multiple dissonant messaging makes a potential crisis even more severe.

Here are some steps that companies and communicators can take for successful crisis navigation in today’s environment:

1. Think outside-in, not inside-out. Remember that the outside world cares more about what the customers and other stakeholders are saying than about what the company wants to communicate. This way of thinking is critical in ensuring that the correct messages are received – particularly with a crisis swirling.

2. If it’s shareable, the news should come from the company first, as otherwise you will find that technology is swift, accessible, and unforgiving. No point evading a situation, it can only become unwieldy s it gains attention.

3. Be prepared at all times. Build in advance an internal team to deal with digital crisis communications. Ensure that legal and regulatory colleagues invest time in understanding the digital space, how crises unfold here and establish a best practice that meets these needs. Allocate roles and the how’s. Preparation enables quick response action.


4. Keep people important to your business in the loop and seek their counsel. If a partner receives a call from the media and is unaware of your situation, it may result in a “throw-away quote” that does not match the intensity of the situation. A trusted external voice can have the unique power to cut through speculative chatter. Essentially build and invest in an ecosystem over time, it’s about preparedness.

5. And most importantly, respond to the situation and maneuver it instead of reacting!

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