Crisis Communications and Reputation Management in a Digital Age

Everyone, including organisations and individuals, are vulnerable to crisis. The crisis communication landscape has changed considerably since the advent of social media and now faces more challenges than ever as the online world continues to transform. Companies and individuals are now expected to respond at the speed of light and PR professionals also have to ensure that they are confident in using all the latest digital platforms to ensure the right message gets to the right audience, at the right time.

Time is at the heart of crisis communications in the digital world. It can present a major issue in the way a crisis is handled and defines a successful communications plan. A negative story that is capable of damaging the reputation of a brand can now reach thousands of people across the globe via social media in the blink of an eye. There are no boundaries when it comes to a story spreading virally, and according to the 2013 Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer study; ‘Containing a crisis: Dealing with corporate disasters in the digital age’, two thirds of crises now cross national boundaries.

Warren Buffet: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook also offer consumers the chance to easily convey their negative consumer experiences, which has significantly contributed to the rise in the number and scale of potential crisis communications. All of these factors make it difficult for organisations to prepare for a crisis now than before the advent of social media. However, these same digital platforms also present themselves as a great communications tool if used correctly, and in the same way a negative message can quickly escalate, so can a positive one.

Social Community

Bad News Travels Fast & Far

Bearing these changes in mind, crisis communication professionals need to ensure they revise their strategy to account for social media. All crisis communications strategies should be revised on a regular basis and spokespeople should receive ongoing crisis media training. Making sure that you have digital experts in place as part of your crisis management team, (who can quickly respond to any negative stories that unfold across digital platforms), means you are well placed to nip these potentially damaging situations in the bud. Social media itself has not changed what we deem as a crisis issue, it has simply changed the speed at which organisations must respond in order to minimise potential brand damage. Social media has provided the public with a very easy way to vent their anger, which can spread at great speed, but this same tool can also allow companies to quickly and effectively manage their response.

The 2013 Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer study also shows us just how quickly crisis communications can develop:

  • 69% of crises spread internationally within 24 hours and on average reach 11 countries
  • 28% of crises spread internationally within 1 hour
  • On average, it takes 21 hours before companies are able to issue meaningful external communications to defend themselves
  • 1 year later, 53% of companies had not seen share prices regain pre-crisis levels

News Travels Fast

Prepare a ‘Holding Statement’

It’s clear to see the speed at which a crisis can develop and the impact it can have on a company’s profit margin but by planning ahead and ensuring you have a dedicated digital crisis communications team in place, you can limit the damage and in some cases, turn the situation into a positive outcome where consumers view your organisation in a better light. The best thing any company can do is plan and practice. Make sure you have a recent holding statement prepared, anticipate a likely crisis for your brand and practice to ensure your team and spokespeople are aware of what’s required of them. Many people think that it will never happen to them and simply don’t practice their crisis comms plan and then when a crisis does hit, everyone is running around in a panic, which leads to a grave mistake in the way you handle your media response. In the digital landscape, it’s critical for a business of any size to have a crisis communications plan that accounts for social media, if you take the attitude of ‘when’ as opposed to ‘if’, you’ll be better placed to handle things if disaster does strike.

How To Avoid A Social Media Meltdown

1. Monitor online conversations, listen and be present

Show your customers you take them seriously by listening to their conversations and comments on your social media channels. Many people use a company’s social media channels as a way to complain and as this is a public forum, you need to respond in line with your organisations customer service policy and in a timely manner. Many companies have been criticized online for not listening to their customers, which is damaging to any brand. By monitoring conversations across social platforms, you may also discover an issue you weren’t aware of and can manage effectively before it escalates. Ensure you have a dedicated digital team who are trained in customer service and can respond accordingly, don’t let employees, or indeed management, who aren’t part of the response team deal with online complaints, as it could lead to more issues if not dealt with in the right way. Remember that responding thoughtfully and with care really pays off, you can win over critics and even create brand advocates. You can build trust with your audience which could lead to one of marketing’s most powerful tools – word of mouth recommendations.

2. Have a crisis communications team in place

It’s best to form a team using members from various departments to ensure all areas are covered including PR, HR, legal, marketing and any other relevant teams that can quickly assemble and manage the impending crisis. Practicing crisis scenarios with the designated team is imperative as this will highlight any areas that need improvement and will give you time to address matters such as media training for spokespeople. Remember time won’t be on your side when a crisis occurs. The team should have a media and digital comms expert in place who is in charge of producing holding statements for external audiences.

3. Don’t take things personally or lose your cool

There will undoubtedly be times when you disagree with your customers, but the age old saying of ‘the customer is always right’ rings true, especially when responding on social forums where things can escalate quickly. By simply providing the best information you can, in a friendly, cooperative way, you should be able to deal with most people’s inquires. There will be times when you come across a particularly tricky customer who insists on being rude or awkward, it’s best to take a step back and not get embroiled in an online war of words. Either ask the customer to discuss via another form of communication such as email or in some cases, the only answer is to cease communication if all other avenues have failed.

Keep Calm and Carry on

4. Conduct regular reviews

All brands should be reviewing their crisis communications plans every 6 months. Things can change quickly so relying on a crisis communications plan you developed 10 years ago and never practice isn’t going to serve you well when disaster does strike. It may seem like something you don’t have time for and don’t need to do as it ‘won’t happen to us’ but this is a recipe for a crisis in its own right. There are new digital platforms and social media channels popping up faster than ever so you need to ensure your crisis management team are aware of these and have a plan in place to account for them.

5. Be transparent and sincere

If a crisis situation does arise, the best thing you can do is be transparent and sincere with your response. Trying to cover up or ignoring the problem will only make matters worse and will damage your brand even further. People make mistakes, we are humans, and your customers are more likely to respect you if you’re honest about the mistakes made and explain how you plan to rectify any issues. If your company makes a mistake, admit it, apologise, and correct it as quickly as possible.


After taking all of these points into consideration, you should be well placed to effectively deal with a crisis should the need arise. Preparation and teamwork are key in crisis management and are two aspects that don’t change with the advent of digital media. Digital has presented us with a time issue in terms of how quickly we now need to respond to a crisis situation but this also presents companies with a positive as it’s much easier and quicker to get across your brand message. The reviewing of crisis comms plans is also something that is more important than ever due to the constantly evolving world we live in, but if the crisis management team have a proven and practiced plan, your company is in the best place to react should a crisis occur.

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