Should You Speak Up? A Framework For Crisis Response

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, December 15, 2021

There’s no shortage of crises capturing headlines these days, from natural disasters and major social-political movements to whistleblowers and executive misbehavior. When these major events make news, companies need to be prepared to respond -- or not -- the right way.

Knee-jerk responses can seem opportunistic or virtue-signaling, although silence or waiting too long can be risky too. The stakes for getting a response right have never been higher.

Social platforms amplify controversial content -- and if your response misses the mark and people react negatively, it’s apt to be seen by many, including mainstream media looking for stories.

What can you do to ensure you are not caught flat-footed -- or miss a critical opportunity -- when something bubbles up? Here are some guidelines you can use to develop a response framework for your organization.

Consider Both the Situation and Your Organization's Role

When a situation arises, you want to be able to quickly assess both the severity/size of the issue and the validity/clarity of your organization's connection to it. Would your response add anything, clarify, or help the situation? Would it obviously align with your brand?

Run some past and potential situations through those filters with your team to agree broadly on what you’ll likely respond to moving forward.

Get into Specifics of Who, When and Where

Once you align on what you will generally respond to, get into the details of exactly who will be included in response discussions and who will be the final decision-maker. If you do not clarify that beforehand, you can end up in a lot of swirl when tensions are high. Be ready for potential push and pull between legal (protecting) and marketing (promoting) -- the key is finding the right balance.

In addition, prepare for how you will select the right channel(s) for the situation and the optimal timing.

In some cases, time is of the essence and a channel like Twitter may work best.

In other cases, the fastest response is not always the most tactful and something longer-form may be better. And always make sure you include employee communications.

Most of the time you should communicate internally before going public, and some situations may warrant only internal communication.

Also, you may consider dovetailing your social response with paid social advertising as well, if and when it makes sense (for example, if it's an opportunistic kind of response and your organization is trying to draw attention to its products and services).

Of course, it can be scary to move from an organic social strategy to putting real money on the table, but it may be worth it. 

If time is of the essence, consider options like Facebook photo ads or messenger ads, which tend to be quicker and easier to create.

Document all of this out ahead of time in a way that works for your team to be able to quickly assess and move when the time comes, then run different scenarios through your plans to pressure-test them.

Done Right, Nonprofits can Leverage Negative Situations for Good

Nonprofit organizations in particular should be prepared to take quick action through digital means. In recent weeks we have seen the emerging trend of “rage giving” -- or spikes in donations to cause-related organizations in response to sudden high-profile news events. You must be agile and ready to make an email appeal that day.

The best “rage giving” results come when nonprofits build a brand before the crisis (proactively investing in SEO, for example, to make themselves easily discoverable).

If you have been quiet up to the moment, that’s okay -- just be prepared to get active on social media immediately.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, for instance, had their best-ever month of donations in June 2020 when they advocated for racial justice on Facebook and Instagram during the initial Black Lives Matter protests.

Some organizations may also consider proactively investing in search engine marketing (SEM) to help ensure their message gets in front of the right people at the right time. SEO is great, but SEM can make sure you’re at “the front of the line” -- elevating your position in search results -- when something is going on that is highly relevant to your business.

In today’s hyper-sensitized climate, you’re always taking a chance when responding -- or not -- to a crisis.

You may not make everyone happy, but having a framework in place (versus relying on a rushed gut response) is your best bet for responding in a way that genuinely adds value and demonstrates your principles while protecting and nurturing your organization’s goals.

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