In today's radically transparent online world, brands can't hide from a crisis.

Few brands know this better than Volkswagen, which is still reeling from the 2015 scandal involving deceptive emissions testing on their diesel vehicles. That's not to mention the more recent revelations, from January 2018, that the automaker financed academic research and scientific studies that were deliberately manipulated to produce data favorable to the diesel car industry.

But Volkswagen's reputation - already in tatters thanks to their shocking engagement in purposeful wrongdoing - has received even more blows because of their lackluster responses.

Instead of accepting culpability and committing to earning back customers' trust, the company has instead fumbled through a series of statements, firings, and hirings that have done little to change how consumers feel about Volkswagen.

Thankfully, it's a rare company that will deliberately deceive its customers. However, every brand, whether large or small, will likely experience a crisis at some point.

When that happens - say a product malfunctions, a customer representative is rude, or an offensive social media post accidentally goes live - there's no longer the option of laying low and hoping no one will notice.

  • 28% of crises spread to international media within 1 hour.
  • 69% of crises spread to international media within 24 hours.
  • It takes brands 21 hours, on average, to deploy a meaningful, legally-approved external response

This is why brands must have a crisis communications plan in place before a crisis strikes. Here are some steps to take as you're developing your crisis communications plan.


Brainstorm and anticipate potential crises.

Being prepared for a crisis means knowing what kinds of crises may arise. Even though no team will ever be able to predict every possible crisis that could strike your brand, it's important to think through possible scenarios in a brainstorming session.

For example, there's a physical type of crisis, in which your product injures someone or makes them sick (think Chipotle's multiple food poisoning incidents).

There's a crisis of information, in which an ad, marketing campaign, social media post, etc. offends a group or strikes a wrong note (think Pepsi's Kendall Jenner ad).

Then there are more serious crises, like Volkswagen's - the criminal kind. For issues like this, you'll want to bring in outside help, so preparing for these types of crises means knowing which legal team you'll use, and likely engaging an outside marketing or crisis communications firm.

Once you've thought through various potential scenarios, you're ready to move to the next step.


Create your own crisis management team.

Crisis management requires having an internal team who can be mobilized quickly - and most of all, who can be trusted - to respond to a crisis with thoughtfulness, empathy, and resourcefulness.

In addition, unless it's critical that every statement be vetted through your legal team before going live, your spokesperson should be empowered to respond to the crisis in real time. Those responses don't need to be detailed - a simple "We're aware of this issue, and we're working to find a solution," will often suffice.

One or two people will need to be identified as spokespeople for your brand, and you'll have to establish a chain of command and approvals process for any crisis response messages. You don't want to slow down your response by having too many people involved, but you also want to ensure that there's a process in place to ensure that responses are properly vetted.

Remember that you may need a separate spokesperson for your online and in-person communications - it's not always the case that the person who writes your best social media messages is also the best person to have on camera or standing up at a press podium.


Determine who your stakeholders are

It's also critical that you identify all your stakeholders during your crisis management planning. This is for two reasons:

  • You need to know how to tailor your messaging to each affected group

  • You need to know where and how to reach each group

Potential stakeholders could include:

  • Your customers

  • Your board

  • Your shareholders

  • Your employees

While a social media post or landing page might be the best way to reach your customers, those methods are not how you would reach out to your board or shareholders.

Similarly, your employees will need to hear about the crisis from you and your leadership team in a timely fashion, so that they don't inadvertently say or do something to make the situation worse. An all-hands emergency meeting might work well in some companies; for others, a group message on your company's Slack workspace might be the fastest way to address your entire staff.
Communicating effectively with your stakeholders during a crisis requires mindful preparation and calm execution. For more on how to manage a brand crisis, check out Zen Media's case study on how we helped Dippin' Dots avoid a crisis with Presidential Press Secretary Sean Spicer.