The rise of social media, the internet, and our ever-present mobile devices has profoundly impacted the ways we communicate, and the spotlight is never so bright than during our worst moments. In 2020, we understood that organizations needed to be present on social media platforms to manage online reputations.
However, by the end of 2022, we realized that this was not enough. Examples from last year reveal that organizations must participate fully in the conversation or risk being blindsided by negative news stories.
In this new year, we embrace a new reality — 2022’s lessons have changed the way we approach crisis communications forever. Here is what we learned about approaching crisis communication quickly, calmly, and honestly.
When Addressing a Crisis, Communicate Quickly
During 2022, we learned the value of planning for a crisis. If an organization prepares ahead of time, almost any problem can be handled before it gets out of hand. Looking back, Southwest Airlines revealed the pitfalls of failing to create a thorough crisis plan. Wintry weather grounded hundreds of flights, and disgruntled customers spiralled into a public meltdown. During the first nine months of the year, this carrier led the pack in profits, but cancelling over 60% of flights over two days and failing to communicate in a timely manner devastated the company’s financial standing and reputation.
Thanks to growing awareness of how people use technology to share stories, information, and opinions, we have a better understanding of the need for timely communication. Social media transformed how people and organizations communicate and is a game-changer in crisis communications. Before social media, companies controlled their messages by talking only to select news outlets or providing information on their websites. Today, social media gives everyone a platform and moves at breakneck speed.
As social media became a tool for public communication, organizations faced both challenges and opportunities in their crisis management strategies. Perhaps, more than anything else, 2022 showed us the value of staying ahead of a crisis with timely communication.
Approach Crisis Communication with Composure
For a clear demonstration of the value of approaching a crisis calmly, look no further than Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. This once-TV actor and comedian was thrown into the spotlight as the world watched him and his nation defend themselves against a global powerhouse. This young leader managed the situation with remarkable composure, despite only entering the presidency and political scene in 2019. He unified his nation and gave them the courage they needed in a crisis.
To approach a crisis with a cool head, organizations must realize they cannot control the message: they can only influence it. When organizations step back and relinquish the need to control, they are far better at participating calmly in the conversation. To analyze the conversation and know how best to participate, organizations need to understand their audience and what that audience wants. In 2022, we learned that the audience is the focus during crisis communications, not the organization.
In a Crisis, Take Accountability
Organizations prefer to portray themselves as perfect; however, just like people, they are prone to make mistakes. Coverups are never the answer. When organizations lie — even about something minimal — a lack of trust builds up amongst employees, consumers, and investors alike.
Slack, in 2022 didn’t even try to test their loyal fans. It stood authentic throughout its outage, even making fun of itself during its crisis response, and this transparency kept loyal users committed to the organization. Looking back, many only remember the crisis if their organization was affected because it was resolved quickly and without any headaches from the Slack organization.
In 2022, we learned that people are not passive recipients of information but active participants in a conversation. Organizations must remember that they are not selling to markets — they’re selling to people, and people deserve respect. Because organizations are dealing with human beings with feelings and personalities, they cannot avoid or control conversations. Although, they can influence them, and that is where the opportunity lies for organizations looking to win. We must participate in discussions honestly and openly to be considered trustworthy.
Sweeping a Crisis Under the Rug is Never the Right Answer
Prior to 2022, many organizations operated with the strategy that ignoring an issue was the best way to get people to forget it. However, FIFA’s hosting of the World Cup in Qatar last year brings to light a nearly decade-long employee crisis that isn’t going anywhere. Since FIFA fans and sports lovers learned of bribes, all the organization’s past grievances — women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights, for instance — came to the forefront as well. If organizations refuse to admit they are wrong, the situation only snowballs, as we saw in Qatar.
It is time to embrace the conversation. Organizations cannot expect people to just stop talking. On social media platforms, the discussion is happening on a level playing field where everyone has an equal voice, and organizations must participate if they want to influence their message or reputation. Not participating in this conversation is equivalent to ignoring reality. If you choose not to participate in the conversation, then someone else will fill that void with their own narrative — often one that casts your organization in a negative light.
Gone are the days of hiding behind the catchphrase of “no comment.” In today’s world, organizations must be transparent and honest at all times, even if it means admitting mistakes or flaws in the business model that led to a crisis situation. If an organization cannot be authentic or admit shortcomings, there is no point in communicating — the company will never earn trust or respect. When faced with a crisis situation, the best thing to do is to be part of the conversation rather than trying to shut it down.
Conversations in a time of crisis reveal more about organizations than they realize. The lessons of 2022 make it clear that organizations need to listen as well as talk.
In order to effectively communicate in a crisis situation, organizations must recognize they’re no longer in control of what people are hearing or saying about them. In light of this, they must respond quickly and with composure. Ignoring the problem never makes it go away. Instead, they must be open and honest with the public about their actions (good or bad) and be transparent about how they handle the nitty-gritty details such as product recalls, customer complaints, and employee misconduct allegations.