November 6, 2013 12:01 am

How to handle a crisis: Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Roger Beale cartoon for Connected Business©Roger Beale

Once upon a time, in the halcyon days before the internet, a well-worded press release may have been enough to defuse a company crisis, but in these days of emails and social media, companies have to do more to prevent storms in tea cups from becoming tsunamis.

Here are five key steps to how to deal with a crisis in the modern era.

Respond quickly

“The demand for a response is 15 minutes on Twitter and about an hour on Facebook,” says Tamara Littleton, chief executive of eModeration, which manages social media for companies ranging from Sony Mobile to Moshi Monsters.

“That is just the way it is now. Brands have to monitor everything and get back very quickly – even if it is just to say: ‘We are aware something has happened and we are looking into it.’”

She warns that if a company remains silent in the face of an unfolding crisis, customers and the general public will begin filling in the gaps for them on social media, very likely tweeting or posting highly unfavourable material about the business.

The longer the delay in response, the harder it becomes for the business to put its point of view across credibly.

“Delay is the worst thing you can do,” agrees Nick Sharples at CrisisVu, a company that provides software that allows companies to monitor social media.

During the horsemeat scandal earlier this year, when a number of food items advertised as beef were discovered to contain horsemeat, Tesco, the supermarket chain, was very quick to publish an apology to customers, while frozen food provider Findus did not go public with its findings for a week.

Mr Sharples says Findus’s delay was perceived very negatively by the public. “People never remember the crisis itself, but they remember if you covered it up.”

Similarly in 2011, when Sony’s customer databases were hacked, the electronics company was criticised more for the length of time it took to tell customers about it than for the breach itself.

Practise, practise, practise

To be able to respond quickly, it is important to have a clear plan of action in place well ahead of any crisis.

“One of the key things about a crisis is preparing before it hits,” says Mr Sharples. He says that, many times, companies are slow to respond because they spend too long discussing their responses with the legal team, who often want to use an impenetrable “legalese”.

“Have the conversations with the lawyers before a crisis hits,” he advises.

Tom Hoskin, group media director at Tesco, says the company’s communications team is prepared to swing into action quickly.

The hardest part is often deciding what constitutes a real crisis. Once that has been established – as during the horsemeat crisis – there is a set plan that can be followed.

It is also essential to have a social media account already set up. About 23 per cent of Fortune 500 companies are not yet active on Twitter, according to research this year by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

Such companies will find themselves virtually voiceless when negative tweets about their product or service begin to fly.

Try to sound sincere

Saying “sorry” quickly and clearly when a company has done wrong is essential, says Mr Sharples.

“An apology is one of the most important elements in a crisis management plan. It can negate much of the criticism that is likely to be streaming in.”

Again during the horsemeat crisis, Tesco took out full page ads in a number of newspapers headed “We apologise”, while Findus published notices with the much more brusque heading “A message to our customers”, and buried the word “sorry” in the second paragraph.

Getting the tone right is important, says Ms Littleton. “It will vary depending on what your brand is. Humour can calm down a situation and get people back on your side. But humour is not right for every brand. For the banking industry it is not appropriate.”

O2 used humour to good effect during a network outage in July 2012. Amid more serious advice, the customer service team sent witty responses to some of the more abusive tweets they were receiving from angry customers.

These were noticed by the wider public and created sympathy towards the customer care team who were showing themselves to be human.

Eventually O2 started receiving supportive tweets from the public such as this one fom @Bentwelly: “Whoever is running @O2 twitter feed today is handling the abuse well! Go you! :-)”

Take breaks and refresh your team

Crisis management is intense and stressful, says Ms Littleton. “We recommend you swap teams over after a couple of hours so people are not taking things personally,” she advises.

“It is very important for people doing the PR or communications to remain calm and not be goaded by the public.”

Ms Littleton’s team at eModeration run crisis simulations for companies to help them rehearse going through a crisis before one hits.

She says the team often find that two or three hours into the simulation, people’s judgment begins to deteriorate and mistakes start to happen. “It’s called the monkey-brain – a known physiological reaction to stress: your brain shuts down.”

Be prepared for the long haul

Type “horsemeat” and “Burger King” into the search bar on Twitter and you will still see a handful of recent tweets linking the fast-food company to the crisis, nearly a year later.

Tom Hoskin at Tesco says that the PR team is still poised for the horsemeat issues to be brought up again, every time any kind of food-related issue surfaces in the media.

“A recent survey in the processed meat industry shows that a quarter of companies in the processed meat industry are still being affected by the horsemeat crisis,” says Mr Sharples. “There is a long tail to a crisis this public – and high profile.”

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