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Crisis Management

Learn how proactively monitoring customer feedback can help your organization identify and manage a potential crisis.

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Influenced by the pandemic, consumers not only spend more time online and on social media, they increasingly use online channels to share their opinions of companies, products, and services. Gathering and monitoring all that consumer feedback in real time can help your organization identify and efficiently manage a potential crisis.

Less than 21% of our November 2021 survey participants selected ‘extremely well’ in response to the question “How well do you think your organization manages its reputation online?” 

This number goes hand in hand with PwC’s recent Global Crisis Survey which found that 95% of business leaders reported that their crisis management capabilities need improvement.

Whether social media is top of mind for your organization or not, the online conversation about your business/product is still happening, and it’s vital to stay on top of what people are saying about you online.

In this guide, we’ll share everything you need to know about tackling crisis management challenges using digital consumer intelligence (DCI) solutions, from the basic principles through to practical tips.

Throughout, you’ll hear from Mangold Consultancy’s Founder and Managing Director Abby Mangold and Social Media Director Justin Clark.

The role of social listening in crisis management communications

How can you quickly understand what’s currently bothering consumers and come up with an effective crisis management strategy?

The answer is simple: by monitoring and analyzing public consumer conversations in real time and letting those insights guide your crisis management communications and response.

Social listening can help brands identify developing negative trends in conversations, understand where conversations are taking place, and get an idea of where conversations are heading – that's why it’s one of the best ways to help companies manage their reputation.

Brands can use social intelligence as an early warning system to stay informed on any potential problems coming their way. As Abby Mangold pointed out, “Used correctly, social intelligence is the 24/7 team member who you’ll come to rely on in good times and bad.”

Social listening activities can include monitoring keywords or phrases around key stakeholders, tracking changes in sentiment around products or services across all social media channels, and even surfacing issues that require immediate attention as opposed to those that can be handled later.

How to approach crisis management

Not every negative social media mention signals a crisis

The rise of social media has had a profound impact on brand communications. Today’s connected consumers feel empowered to hold companies and brands “accountable”, and they use social as the platform to voice their concerns and put pressure on businesses around specific issues.

While not every negative comment on social represents a crisis, no business is immune from a potential crisis either. Understanding what is being said about your brand on the internet, and how that information is being perceived and spread by consumers, is paramount. 

What constitutes a ‘social media crisis’? 

When a situation occurs unexpectedly that has the potential to negatively affect your brand and your reputation, understanding the source of the information, how it’s being spread, and how quickly, is critical. 

Justin Clark explains that if the situation is known only to those inside your organization, and people outside your organization: 

  • Won’t get to hear about it, or
  • Don’t need to know about it, or
  • Won’t have a strong reaction if they do hear about it,

you’re dealing with an incident that doesn’t require special treatment.

But if:

  • You can’t be certain any of the statements above are true, or 
  • There is potential for the information to get outside your organization without your knowledge, and 
  • The reputation of your organization could possibly be at stake,
  • then you’re dealing with a crisis which needs to be managed internally and externally.

From social listening to digital consumer intelligence

More agile companies have taken their social listening efforts to the next level by tapping into multiple data points and harnessing that data to access a 360-degree view of consumers at all points of the customer journey. These insights then get fed into product development, marketing, and many other areas of the business in a timely fashion. At Brandwatch, we call this digital consumer intelligence or DCI. 

"We’ve seen the huge impact social intelligence has had for our clients and the change from social listening being a ‘nice to have’ to an essential tool brands can’t live without. Some brands are slow to switch it on, but once they do, they never switch it off again; it’s that powerful."
— Justin Clark, Social Media Director, Mangold Consultancy

To help organizations understand whether they get the most out of their data and how to make better data-driven decisions, we’ve introduced the DCI Maturity Model. It’s a framework organizations can follow to become more effective at using data to inform everything they do, including crisis management. 

There are four key stages of DCI maturity: 

  1. Monitoring (early stage/beginner)
  2. Developing intelligence 
  3. Digital consumer intelligence
  4. Embedded digital consumer intelligence (mature stage/expert)

In this guide, we’ll look specifically at crisis management through the DCI maturity lens.

1. Monitoring: Building an early warning system

Monitoring is the earliest stage of DCI Maturity and a fundamental component when planning a crisis management strategy. At this stage, an organization can begin to identify the different ways customer information and data are being captured, and what, if anything, is being done with the data. 

Typically at the earliest stage, brands engage in broad monitoring that’s focused on the organization and its brand name as well as any related products, services, or partners.

Abby Mangold points out: “You’ve got to have a starting point, a baseline to understand where, how often, and on what topics people are talking about your organization. Without this you’ve got no frame of reference when things start heating up in a crisis. It’s one of the first things we ask our clients - what are normal social interaction levels like for you?

Mangold Consultancy’s crisis management experts suggest that at this stage around 90% of social mentions gathered relate to information that is already known about internally. This isn’t necessarily useful from a crisis point of view (since crises are often unexpected and online discussions won’t always be picked up by standard brand searches). But, from time to time, they may reveal something that wasn’t known about before. This new information can help create more specific, targeted searches to track new and potentially threatening issues. 

Automation: How to monitor social conversations effectively 

Social listening is the process of monitoring consumer opinions and collecting data from social platforms and forums on a chosen topic. The number of social media conversations happening at any given time is massive, and setting up automation can help brands process all these conversations effectively to get meaningful insights from them. 

Solutions like Brandwatch Consumer Research make it easy to automate searches, create customizable real-time alerts, and build a strong notification system as part of a crisis management strategy. 

For brands that are at the very beginning of their crisis management journey, the first step would be to come up with a list of keywords relevant to the brand, product, or service – this includes known issues, threats, and common criticisms or complaints – and build these keywords into a search query in Brandwatch. The initial analysis of the data will likely prompt query iterations, and it’s perfectly fine to go back and tweak to make search results more relevant – in fact, it’s an essential part of making your query as useful as it can be. 

From there, automatic Alerts and Signals can be set up to warn stakeholders of emerging crises.

2. Developing intelligence: Turning data into insights 

The second stage of DCI Maturity, as it relates to crisis management, is about sharpening the above efforts and moving from broad monitoring to focused searches.

How can brands sift through social conversation and distinguish between isolated negative mentions that have no overall impact on the brand’s reputation and an emerging crisis that requires immediate action?

Setting up ‘threat-level’ benchmarks

Regardless of the industry, every organization should have a set of defined benchmarks – big or small – that represent a certain level of anticipated negativity online that is acceptable and can be deemed ‘normal’. Benchmarks should be established at the brand level and monitor conversation concerning the brand, although they can also follow individual, smaller topics of interest. 

When the maximum threshold level is reached – the level of anticipated negativity has surpassed the established norm – it should signal to an organization that a conversation currently happening on social needs to be immediately investigated and managed. Reaching thresholds for negative mentions, either at the brand level or for a specific issue, is also a signal to dig deeper – this is where the creation of a new, issue-specific search query can be useful.

Depending on but not limited to factors such as industry, risk tolerance, and channel usage, here are some standard signals to look out for when analyzing social data:

  • Gradual and continuous rise in mention volume over time
  • A sudden, unexpected spike in volume (brand or keyword mentions)
  • Sudden sentiment shift (towards negative) and related keyword mentions focusing on a single issue
  • Growth in media coverage and the type of publication mentioning the brand/keywords
  • Who is mentioning the brand/keywords? Look out for mentions from high-influence users including celebrities, politicians, journalists, or key industry stakeholders

Quite often, social signals like these will correlate with offline signals such as customer service inquiries, contact from the media, or direct, internal engagement from key stakeholder groups.

“In a crisis you get signals from a range of stakeholders, via various channels. Understanding the full picture is critical in managing your crisis communications.”
— Abby Mangold

Identifying an emerging crisis: Spotting early signs

While this will always differ from company to company, there are some early signals that negative social mentions can escalate to a threat: 

  • Breaking news concerning the brand – especially from a national print, online, or broadcast media outlet
  • Changing frequency and intensity of conversations relating to the brand
  • Topic of mentions narrowing to a single (negative) issue
  • Deteriorating sentiment over a particular topic or issue 
  • Key fans or critics discussing incorrect information relating to the brand
  • Social trends, with brands (and competitors), caught in the middle or coerced into the conversation, etc.

3. Digital consumer intelligence: Respond and learn 

Organizations that have advanced to the digital consumer intelligence stage will likely feel confident enough to enact a real-time response. So, when the team is in crisis mode, all plans can be enacted swiftly and without confusion. 

The importance of speed

According to Mangold Consultancy, the most common reason for an isolated negative conversation to turn into a crisis is a slow or inadequate response. For example: 

  • Failure to respond to a social media complaint 
  • A poorly worded response to a social media complaint
  • A lack of action internally to correct a situation in time due to no protocols being available or established

Effective internal communication is as important as opening up to the public with an official statement.

Leveraging a command center for these instances can allow an organization to both receive external feedback in real time and to share crucial communications across the organization immediately, implementing a single source of truth. 

Planning for crises: Crisis simulation 

Each crisis will require specific resources and communications to manage the issue from A to Z, and it’s best to plan ahead where it’s possible. Crisis simulation exercises increase an organizations’ crisis readiness as it helps assess strategies, plans, and systems in place, and how it’ll all work when a crisis strikes. They also highlight gaps in an organization’s capability and identify the weak points that need to be strengthened for when a crisis strikes for real.

A crisis simulation is most useful when it is based on realistic, real-world issues that your organization might face. Anticipating which scenarios are most realistic, most likely to occur for real, and which present the greatest threat to your organization, is essential. 

Without going through the simulation process and stress-testing your crisis management response, your organization will be forced to learn from scratch in real time when a real-world crisis strikes. 

“This is not where you want to be,” says Justin Clark. Crisis situations are stressful, time-consuming, and test internal processes like no other situation. It’s not the place to be making decisions about who should be in charge or how an issue should be handled, you need to know that in advance. 

The best way to write scenarios is to present a problem-situation. It takes the approach of highlighting an issue with the intent to provide a solution. 

"Most clients we work with know where their next crisis could come from, they know which issues they’re involved with have the highest likelihood of escalating, so an honest assessment of issues is critical."
— Justin Clark, Social Media Director, Mangold Consultancy

At the most basic level, Justin advises: “Simply begin by writing on a piece of paper a list of “what if X happened…and then continue by asking how the issue could play out, the impact it will have on day-to-day work, and how it’s going to affect brand reputation”, as well as all the stakeholders, such as customers and staff. 

Tip: These pen-and-paper activities can even help with query writing and alerts around particular crisis scenarios since they’ll include potential keywords someone might use in a social media post.

Mangold Consultancy conduct thorough and detailed scenario planning exercises for their clients. This practice will help organizations map out where issues can escalate to and will help define the steps to deescalation, providing a solid plan for an organization to rely on during a crisis.

4. Embedded digital consumer intelligence: Iterate, rinse, and repeat

Crisis management starts well before a crisis emerges, and having the right tools and plans in place will make all the difference when it comes to monitoring and managing your brand reputation – automated monitoring will be doing most of the work for you.

Organizations that are operating at the highest level of DCI Maturity will bring together all of the above best practice on monitoring, segmenting, and planning and they’ll exhibit the following behaviors:

  • At this level, inputs from DCI inform major company steps, with data being at the heart of every decision.
  • The organization is proactively listening and monitoring all sides of the conversation.
  • Insights and findings are actively consumed by the C-suite and decision makers across the organization.
  • Communication will be key, and clear information is delivered to all employees in real time to ensure everyone knows what’s happening and how to handle potential queries.

Perhaps most importantly, mature organizations will learn from previous crises. What obstacles popped up that the company hadn’t planned for? What would the crisis management team do differently next time? What went well? A crisis can make room for all kinds of change, and can be useful for informing future plans and monitoring.

Managing a crisis: A step-by-step manual 

So, it’s happening, and a crisis has erupted. What should you do first?

a. Research

"When we’re made aware of an emerging crisis situation or an issue an organization thinks might turn into a crisis, the first thing we do is research the issue. We need to identify quickly who the key people are and what people are likely to be talking about online."
— Justin Clark, Social Media Director, Mangold Consultancy

When you first spot an emerging situation on social – for example, a significant increase in mention volume or rapidly deteriorating sentiment over a particular topic or issue – the first step would be to gather more information. 

Here are some questions an organization might want to ask at this stage:

  • How significant is the increase in mention volume from your average or norm?
  • How is the volume changing over time?
  • Is the sentiment positive or negative?
  • Are negative mentions restricted to one channel, or did they start on a single channel and now spreading to multiple online platforms?
  • When did the crisis happen?
  • Why is this conversation happening?
  • Who are the key stakeholders driving the conversation?
  • Who is the source of this social activity (eg disgruntled customers, bots, reposts, syndicated articles, or automated content sharing)?
  • Assess the accuracy of information. Who can verify the accuracy of the mentions, news, and images shared on social?
  • What’s the potential impact of the issue on your customers and other external stakeholders?
  • What time frame is reasonable to formulate and dispatch a response?

Then, Justin suggests creating a keyword list, “so everything relevant to the issue is in one place.”

When your organization has access to a digital consumer intelligence tool like Brandwatch Consumer Research, your crisis management team can start building search queries, using the list of previously defined keywords. This process requires an ongoing iteration, and Justin added, “You’re never going to get it right the first time and it will always be a process of constant refinement!” However, by using the answers to the above questions, you’ll be able to get a good idea of how the conversation is progressing and quickly start to pick up on additional phrases or keywords that need to be added to your query.

b. Get organized internally

Here are the questions that need answering next:

  • Who needs to be involved? 
  • Does your business have a dedicated crisis management team or team member?
  • Does your business have a tried-and-tested crisis management protocol? 
  • Does your brand have a social media policy and guidelines; what about a brand voice (in which to respond to a crisis)?
  • Does your business have ready-to-use response templates that address and cover your current issue?
  • Assess the potential impact of the issue on the business and its staff.

You’ll notice that the above questions rely on a number of different plans and stakeholder lists to be in place for when things go wrong. Preparation is key, and we definitely recommend doing some crisis scenario planning.

c. Understand the context in real time

Once the query is in place, it’s time to create dashboards to better understand the context behind the conversation that’s unfolding.

“Sometimes I’m looking for very specific information that acts as a signal that we need to take action,” Justin says. “Other times, there isn’t anything specific and I want to monitor the issue in very broad terms.” 

Brandwatch Consumer Research offers a variety of dashboards that can help segment your data, uncovering what needs to be investigated further – for example, which channel or sub-topic to focus on.

Here are some common areas and things a crisis management team can look for:

  • How is the volume changing over time?
  • Has the volume changed dramatically? Are there spikes?
  • If there are spikes, what has caused them? 
  • Who is talking about the issue as time progresses?
  • Is it media, influencers, celebrities, or individuals?
  • Is the organization being mentioned directly or indirectly?
  • Is the information in mentions true, based on facts, or are people making assumptions and/or spreading lies about the issue and our organization?

At this point, having key stakeholders gather (in person or virtually) around your digital command center can help with decision making. If everyone’s got the same view of the situation and its severity, and if a clear plan is in place, then responding to the crisis will be far less stressful.

d. Identify key messages

Pre-planning only gets you so far but gives you a real head start and saves valuable time, so now it’s time to take those prepped response documents out and decide what key messages need to be added in, taken out, and refined your response. Keep it simple – have no more than three main messages and communicate them clearly.

While this is being done, your social media accounts can be useful channels. Any communication must be handled carefully, but acknowledging that you’re looking into an issue can help quell demands for immediate action. 

We’ve all experienced frustration at a company going silent amidst a scandal. And it’s every brand manager’s worst nightmare when a negative comment from a customer has gone viral.

Sometimes, just being acknowledged and knowing someone is doing something is enough to quiet fears and can stop repeat mentions (as long as that action sounds sensible and proportionate to the seriousness of the problem). Abby Mangold adds, “For example, consumers are complaining that your company’s orange juice tastes weird and is making them feel unwell. While you investigate you may want to post to your social media accounts to show you are listening and hearing what people are saying, ‘We know some of you have been talking about our OJ product and we’re really sorry to hear if you’ve been feeling unwell. We are looking into this right now and will be back in touch very soon with more information.’”

e. Inform internally

Run internal briefings to all relevant teams, providing a detailed explanation of the situation and advising members of staff on how they should respond if contacted by press. Effective internal communication is as important as opening up to the public with an official statement. Keeping key people briefed internally also speeds up their involvement should it be needed. 

Leveraging a command center for these instances can allow you to both receive external feedback in real time and to share crucial communications across your organization immediately, ensuring you will be the single source of truth for your team. 

f. Communicate early and often (in your brand voice)

You have the information you need, you know your key messages. Now it’s time to start talking publicly.

Start the conversation by introducing the problem, the current status, and the proposed solution. It can be useful to commit to regular updates – this sets deadlines for your team and provides comfort for your audience. But, of course, be realistic.

Remember to always gut-check your communications against your company voice. Just because a crisis is at hand doesn’t mean you have to sanitize the personality of your brand. Communications in times of crisis that are overly formal, corporate, or robotic sounding, can come across as insincere, especially if your brand voice is more informal during peacetime. Keep the information at the front but don’t turn into someone you’re not, don’t forget to talk human!

Questions to ask when responding to a crisis

  • What does my audience (internal and external) need to know?
  • What information can we disclose and what needs to be held back?
  • What format does this information need to be presented in? Ie what are the restrictions of the channel(s) where you plan to communicate
  • In complex situations, how can we simplify our message to ensure it’s accessible and memorable?
  • When can we expect to update the audience (internal and external) on next steps?
  • If relevant, how can people contact us, and where should we direct people for more information?

Crisis-proof: How to set up a catch-all crisis monitoring program? (Checklist)

Mishandled crises can ruin businesses and their reputation. Follow this checklist from Mangold Consultancy to ensure your business is protected:

1. Assign roles 

Set up a dedicated crisis management team or appoint an individual who will be responsible for managing online communications in times of crisis – and know in advance who needs to be involved in approving communications so the publication of comms isn’t slowed down when you might need to be acting quickly. 

2. A historic look 

Study well-known and most common PR issues in your industry or sector and review your organization’s history as well as its competitors, as it can give you more context and help map out risks. Do an in-depth analysis of data and metrics and set up benchmarks that will help your organization define what a ‘threatening level’ means so signals can be interpreted and assessed against a pre-agreed standard.

3. Do your research 

Come up with a list of keywords relevant to your brand, product or service, competitors, industry, and common industry issues or topics, and then create search queries that will address these areas. 

The most important way to ensure monitoring is ‘robust’ is to check and confirm that any search query you create includes all relevant keywords. Justin suggests always taking time to work this out in advance, as it is easy to miss important keywords, phrases, and issues related to your organization.

4. Automate your reporting 

Set up social listening automation to monitor those keywords and issues. 

Brands have a couple of options when it comes to setting up monitoring. The first is to set up multiple search queries, ie one query per issue with all the relevant keywords and a combination of keywords included. 

The second option is to set up a ‘catch-all’ search query that will include everything that is relevant to your organization. This ‘catch-all’ query can then be segmented using the Brandwatch filtering system to allow you to focus on smaller issues and sets of keywords. 

Once all queries are created, set up Brandwatch’s automated, customizable Alerts. Alerts become your eyes and ears – they are the extra team member who brings you information 24/7, helps you get ahead of issues, and gives you the time to activate your crisis planning process.

5. Crisis scenario planning

Brainstorm different crisis scenarios, their impact on the business, and draft potential responses to each, as a minimum.

This is also the right time to establish confidentiality guidelines (what business information employees are allowed to share publicly) and the company’s brand voice – what tone is your company going to maintain on social?

6. Crisis communication simulation

Engage your company’s communication and media teams in a simulation of a real situation in real time to make sure your organization is as prepared as it can be. If you can, bring together the key people in your organization and simulate a crisis. Make it as realistic as possible. Crucially, learn the lessons from the simulation and use the lessons to improve your crisis management procedures going forward. 

Leaving a negative conversation unattended is the worst thing a brand can do, and running these types of exercises is a great way to assess the operational capability of the brand’s crisis management team and systems in place in case of an actual crisis.

7. Set up frameworks for everyone to follow

Create guidelines around when, how, and how often your organization is to review the automation setup and the insights it’s pulling. It’s important to regularly analyze the data, and query iterations and automations are an inevitable part of the monitoring process to make search results more relevant and for the automation to really work as a barometer.  

8. Become a proactive ‘social listener’

Employ a proactive approach to monitoring key conversations and influencers. That means that brands should always check whom the social activity is coming from. Is it bots, reposts, syndicated, or automated content sharing? In other words, assess whether the current social activity is genuinely something you need to be concerned about. 

Content and context are very important. 

"If 50 real customers are talking negatively about a specific issue, that can be far worse than 1000 shares from syndicated/automation accounts."
— Justin Clark, Social Media Director, Mangold Consultancy

9. Media relationships

Build and maintain relationships with key media outlets and reporters. Knowing individual journalists and having strong relationships with them when things are good can make all the difference during a crisis. It will be a lot easier to tell a brand story from your perspective in order to earn third-party validation (and more balanced media coverage). 

10. Monitor, learn, adjust, and repeat

Crisis management is not a one-and-done process. It’s an ongoing effort that covers three stages: 1) pre-crisis, 2) crisis response, and 3) post-crisis. A strong crisis management strategy will not only help minimize immediate damage, but can make an organization more resilient to major disruptions and help preserve – maybe even strengthen – your brand’s reputation in times of crisis. That’s why evaluating your crisis management system, learning from it, and adjusting when necessary is key. 

"If you know and accept that you’re unprepared for handling a crisis, then you’re in a good position. A lot of organizations don’t realize this until it’s too late!"
— Justin Clark, Social Media Director, Mangold Consultancy

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