During times of crisis, keeping in touch with a consumer base is crucial.
These circumstances can usually be divided into two categories: an external crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, natural disasters and recessions, or an internal crisis such as failing a pesticide test, an insensitive ad campaign or irresponsible behavior from a high-level executive. Experts in marketing and public relations agree that it’s not a question of if a business will face a crisis, but a question of when. And for companies that aren’t prepared, the moment of crisis might be too late to respond properly.
According to Paige Arnof-Fenn, founder of the marketing firm Mavens & Moguls, the right preparation and response to a crisis can ultimately reap huge rewards for businesses because “employees, customers and clients will remember who treated them well during the crisis, and they will be rewarded with loyalty from earning that trust during the bad times.”
Paying it Forward
A recent example of a cannabis company getting involved with its community is Curaleaf, which celebrated the reopening of its Nevada retail stores by partnering with 7th & Carson Downtown Kitchen and Bar in Las Vegas to provide fresh meals and supply kits to the area’s homeless population.
In response to the community’s ongoing need to feed and shelter the homeless, the company’s Acres and Curaleaf Boulevard dispensaries collected money over the previous five weeks via its “rounding-up” exact change payment policy for cannabis delivery service and used the funds to purchase 106 fresh meals and 85 care kits, in collaboration with local charities Food Not Bombs and Caridad.
“We wanted to help our community during these challenging times and were gratified to see our downtown neighbor, 7th & Carson, was already reaching disadvantaged individuals,” said Nicole Silverman, director of marketing for Curaleaf Nevada, adding that the collaboration allowed Curaleaf to increase its impact and help more people.
“7th & Carson is grateful to the team at Curaleaf Nevada for what is, as of today, our largest single donation of meals and supplies care kits yet,” said Jenn Tramaglino, marketing partner for 7th & Carson.
1. Have a plan
Dorien Morin-van Dam, strategist and manager of the social media marketing firm More in Media, says every business should have a plan that lays out instructions on how the company should respond to a wide assortment of emergencies or unexpected events.
“You want to have it set up so that if X happens we respond as Y,” Morin-van Dam says, adding that the plan should also be an evolving document that is part of employee training and regularly reviewed by staff when additions or changes are made.
When writing the crisis management plan, Sarah Thorson, CEO of the public relations firm Ripple Communications, says to put together a team of four to five people, including the top executives and marketing personnel.
Thorson says companies should have separate plans to communicate with employees, stakeholders and the media. She says the basic steps for a crisis management plan start with acknowledging the emergency, then sharing the facts with the managers so they can spread the information downward. After that, stakeholders should be notified; then a statement should be created for the media.
Alex Miscione, director of marketing for the Law Offices of Thomas F. Nowland, advises companies to have one response ready for consumers and another for the community at large.
2. Be human
Mariana Padilla, CEO of Red Lab Marketing, says that during an external crisis, successful marketing revolves around humanizing a brand.
“Leading with empathy and authenticity is key to your messaging,” Padilla says.
According to Kent Lewis, president of the digital marketing firm Anvil Media, being human means leaving behind the corporate jargon that dominated public relations before the advent of social media.
“The U.S. treats corporations as humans, but corporations don’t treat humans humanely,” Lewis says. “Corporations and PR people have had to wake up to start speaking the language of their customers.”
3. Focus on empathy
Whether a company is addressing an internal or external crisis, Lewis says the response should always center around empathy.
Part of being empathetic means putting leadership out in front to acknowledge the crisis and show the company is working through the tragedy alongside the community, says Morin-van Dam.
“The first thing they want to hear from a brand is that there is a leader. They want to see leadership,” she says. “They are looking for leadership to say: ‘I feel you.’”
Before reaching out to the community, marketing strategist Tony Pham suggests taking a step back and thinking about how the business and its customers are going to be impacted.
“Show more empathy and consideration for where the customers are coming from,” Pham says. “These situations show how connected and dependent we are on each other.”
4. Silence is deadly
When it comes to an internal crisis, the majority of public relations professionals agree that the worst response is silence.
“If you don’t have a plan or ignore it, that’s when people, even employees, are going to spread the wrong information,” Morin-van Dam says. “If you don’t talk about it, everybody else will assume and they are going to talk about it in the wrong way.”
Thorson says doing nothing not only allows misinformation to spread. If the business refuses to comment when media outlets cover the story, many may see it as confirmation of the rumors and the damages could increase. She also says every company should establish an official spokesperson and ensure that all employees know to refer any media inquiry to that person.
5. Get involved
Morin-van Dam says a major step in dealing with an external crisis, such as a natural disaster, is showing how the company’s leadership is contributing to a solution.
For example, businesses can receive praise by converting a portion of their workforce to produce supplies for first responders, Morin-van Dam says. If that is not an option, Pham suggests partnering with a community organization that is responding directly to the crisis.
Charitable efforts should be posted on the company’s social media channels, through brand ambassadors and on the company’s blog, Morin-van Dam says, but adds that self-congratulatory language should be avoided as the message should be about healing the community. She says the best results will come from sharing the content with local reporters who might cover the company’s contribution in a news story.
“It’s always better when other people write about you than when you write about you,” Morin-van Dam says.
Miscione says there’s a difference between people doing a good deed and brands doing a good deed; companies that go around announcing their charitable efforts too aggressively can be met with skepticism.
“I don’t think brands should be worried about posting some of the good things that they are doing to their own social media since customers go there to see what the business or brand is doing,” Miscione says. “Maybe they don’t need to run a multimillion-dollar campaign about it, but share it on social media, make a post about it on your blog.”
6. Set Expectations
During an external crisis, businesses may have to operate with limited inventory. Pham says that if demand for a certain product spikes, companies should consider limiting purchases to a set amount per customer and setting expectations that online sales may have delays until the inventory is replenished.
7. Reassess your marketing
The context of a marketing campaign can shift dramatically when a crisis happens. It can change something innocuous, such as a clever play on words, into something that is perceived by the target audience as tasteless and insensitive.
“Being off the mark comes off as being clueless,” Pham says, adding that there is equal danger in forcing a connection between your brand and the tragedy. “I understand the natural inclination of wanting to be relevant and on topic, but it can come off as being selfish.”
Miscione says brands that have a clearly defined target audience can easily spot content that would offend its consumers, and they should be proactive the moment a tragedy hits that community.
“Any brand that cares about its customer base and its customers’ concerns should be listening,” Miscione says.
8. Take it offline
When an angry commenter starts engaging with a company through social media, Morin-van Dam says taking the conversation offline is paramount to mitigating the potential damage.
“Try to have a phone call, an email exchange, something that doesn’t involve an audience of potentially millions of people,” Morin-van Dam says, adding that the company should make at least two attempts to try and get them to call or email and then to stop responding “because you have already shown to the world that you have responded and tried to resolve it.”
9. Respond quickly
Due to the pervasive nature of social media, many companies will face internal crises that are limited to comments on a social media post or a poor review from a disgruntled customer. Morin-van Dam says both cases can be disastrous for small businesses.
“It’s going to happen,” Morin-van Dam says. “You can’t keep all of your customers happy, but if you have pre-written responses to complaints, to reviews that aren’t so great, then you can start with those and most of the time that is what will satisfy or pacify those who are upset.”
Morin-van Dam instructs all of her clients to immediately tell the owner of the company if a one-star review comes in, and then respond to the customer by using the guidelines in the management plan.
10. Make amends and plan for the future
When a company is at fault, Miscione recommends speaking with the party that was wronged to get an understanding of their perspective and what it would take to atone for the incident. Once the company ascertains the details, he says to “have someone who is responsible for the brand go on camera, explain why they came to that decision, the complaints that were brought up, what they understand about it now and, if they feel that they were in error and made a mistake, then give a genuine apology.”
Pham says to “respond as quickly as possible and own it,” adding that a key part of taking responsibility is apologizing and laying out what the company is doing to prevent the incident from happening again — and to do so in plain English.
“A lot of companies respond in legalese, but that’s not an apology or taking responsibility,” Pham says. “If you’re equivocating, then it’s not going to come across as taking responsibility.”