A Crisis Communications Plan for Brands

A Crisis Communications Plan for Brands

With more and more of our lives lived online, it’s not surprising that in the era of social media even businesses now weigh in on cultural zeitgeist moments. Some companies go a step beyond and manage to create their own (lest we forget the social media domination of Popeye’s chicken sandwich).

Brands have also come to lend their voice during times of trouble, like natural disasters, pandemics, or other tragic events. While some brands do offer genuine, authentic support in these situations, others see an opportunity to capitalize and run promotional campaigns. It’s a tricky balance to strike, as you don’t want to seem crass or opportunistic and risk getting dragged on Twitter.

When devastation occurs, it is prudent for businesses to want to avoid messaging that comes across as tone-deaf or exploitative. Here, we’ll give you a few tips on creating community and showing empathy in a variety of empowering ways. 

Should you be part of the conversation? 

The first thing you should ask yourself is whether your brand should be part of a public conversation at all.

Businesses can and should lend their expertise or support in times of crisis, but there's a right and wrong way to do it. There are benefits to putting out a timely message of support. But a well-thought-out strategy is much more valuable than being the first to post. Taking a step back will allow you to analyze the situation and decide on appropriate next steps. Ask yourself: “Do our customers need to hear from us?”

If yes, take a moment and think about what your brand’s unique contribution could be. Look to your business ethos, products, and marketing messaging, asking the following questions:

  • Will my product be useful now? 
  • Can my products or marketing be used to share kindness with others?
  • Will my products or marketing be received as a welcomed distraction?
  • Has the lens shifted on my business in the wake of the crisis? 

When you have your answers to these questions, take the time to slow down and craft thoughtful messaging to ensure you make a considerate impact.

Additionally, realize that sometimes sitting on the sidelines is perfectly okay. Support doesn’t always need to be a public event. When done incorrectly, weighing in on a crisis can be a major public relations nightmare.

Be mindful of your messaging

Depending on the magnitude of whatever is happening, you may not be able to continue your marketing plan as usual. When public tragedy or significant social disruption strikes, if you do feel that making a public statement is warranted, then having a carefully crafted message from your business is crucial.

It’s vital to assess how your audience may perceive any of your live or pre-planned promotions, as you need to protect your brand by ensuring you don’t accidentally put a foot wrong. Don’t be afraid to postpone major events or campaigns. In light of a crisis, have a second look at every ad, email, and piece of creative content you have planned. Try to be hypersensitive to any campaigns that may appear to have mixed motives. Sometimes, the best of intentions can be confused for being opportunistic.

Reexamine all of your upcoming and live digital campaigns, too. Adjust your messaging to be sensitive to what people are going through—even if it's for a limited time. During the ever-evolving COVID-19 global crisis, many brands have shifted their focus. Each brand is still selling products, but they are also walking the fine line between support and sales in their messaging. Josie Maran Cosmetics, for example, paused its regularly scheduled product programming to thank frontline workers. Allbirds amplified small businesses in need.

You can still run ads to promote your brand or products, but be cautious. Don't exploit the crisis or look like you are exploiting it and, again, think of your audience. Ask what messaging your audience needs right now:

  • How will our ads or content be received? 
  • Are there parts of our campaign that could be seen as tone-deaf?
  • Are we using the right marketing channels to reach our audience?

There’s a fine line between being timely and being opportunistic. Even if you don’t mention the event by name, your audience has great radar for anything that seems exploitative (whether it’s intentional or not.) 

Focus on growing community 

During periods of social uncertainty, it can be fulfilling to both your customers and your business to cultivate a stronger community. Social media is a potent tool—especially when devastation occurs. In recent years, it's played a major role in communicating and promoting recovery efforts for natural disasters, pandemics, and other tragedies.

As a business, recognizing how to use social media to respond to distressing events is just as important as deciding whether or not to be part of the conversation. Consumers are likelier to be more loyal, now and down the road, if your response is tempered with a more empathetic touch. 

Toronto-based fashion brand Kotn took to their Instagram to forge a stronger community in the wake of the devastation of COVID-19. By asking their customers for the silver linings in times of crisis, they brought together moments of joy for long-time customers and new shoppers alike. Additionally, because of self-isolation, and the nature of their products, the brand called for pictures of their customers at home wearing Kotn to encourage connection while social distancing. 

If your business decides to address the tragedy, pandemic, or crisis at hand, what should you be sharing, and how often should you be posting? Ask yourself the following:

  • What does our community want to hear about right now? Have we asked them?
  • How can we spread positivity and hope in moments of stress?
  • How can we give our audience a sense of normalcy in uncomfortable moments?
  • Do we need to reduce the number of social posts we publish in the coming weeks and months?

More often than not, consumers want to see brands sharing messages of hope or positivity and then gradually move on to business as usual.

Be empathetic

Empathy goes a long way. In crisis or uncertainty, people are often anxious and afraid. During this time, it's easy for people to misconstrue even the best-intentioned comments and posts. So instead of trying to be clever, create content that directly addresses the concerns of your customers and those most impacted.

Before posting anything—it doesn't matter if it's a comment, ad, or social post—ask yourself:

  • How will this make our audience feel?
  • Does our messaging create a sense of comfort?
  • Do we sound like people or marketers?
  • Can we do something for the greater good?

Consumers are getting dozens of emails from several brands. Stand out by thinking about how people want to be talked to during a crisis. Be authentic, tell real stories, and try to spread a message of hope and support.

With the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic, it’s reassuring for many people to know they are not going through this alone. Consumers are looking for helpers—your brand can be that for them.

About the author

Sarah MacDonald

Sarah MacDonald is a culture writer and editor based in Toronto. Her words can be found in the Globe and MailHazlitt, The Walrus, CBC Arts, Elle Canada, VICE, and many more. She currently works as a content writer at Shopify Plus.

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