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Crisis Communications in a Digital Age

By Meghan SullivanNov 8, 2013

Crisis Communications in a Digital AgeDuring the lifetime of your business, it’s a good possibility you will have to address some kind of issue. Whether it’s a high-profile firing, a data breach or a product quality issue, these things happen. It’s important to remember just that—stuff happens. You can only do your best to prevent it, but, ultimately, businesses are run by human beings and human being make mistakes. The important thing is how mistakes are addressed and resolved. Some companies have been absolutely brilliant in their handling of issues while others make the entire situation worse than it initially was. Read on to ensure you end up on the brilliant side. 

Handling Crises: Good, Bad and Ugly

My first real exposure to crisis communications as an individual PR strategy was hearing Cleveland-based communications expert, Bruce Hennes, speak. His approach is so common-sense and fundamental that it’s a wonder more businesses don’t handle less-than-desirable situations in this way. At its core, his recommendation, which I wholeheartedly agree with, is to just come out with it. Don’t try to spin it, don’t try to cover anything up and don’t wait for a reporter to start asking you questions before you start trying to explain what’s going on. Just communicate. Tell everyone exactly what’s going on, how it happened and what you’re doing about it, and do this immediately and regularly. As soon as someone else starts talking publically about the situation, you’ve lost control. It’s now their story, not yours.

We’ve all observed examples of individuals and organizations that have handled crises terribly. The media has a field day with them, and their stories are hard to miss. What’s easier to overlook is when a brand handles a crisis exceptionally well, because it’s uneventful and not newsworthy—and isn’t that how you want a crisis situation to end? The most recent example of a crisis that turned out well and inspired this post comes from social sharing tool Buffer.

Hacked! The Buffer Story

Already well-documented, social sharing platform Buffer found itself in hot water a few weekends ago when its system was hacked, and spammy posts were shared on Buffer client accounts. Aside from all the individuals affected, tons of marketers use the service for branded social posts—imagine the nightmare! Buffer was all over the situation as soon as it broke, responding to users' individual messages via social media and keeping the user base updated regularly as progress was made to investigate and resolve the situation. A handful of very honest, humble and detailed emails were also sent to every user explaining what had happened, how it happened and what the company was doing about it.

Leverage Real-Time Benefits of Digital Channels

Digital marketing makes it easier than ever to diffuse a potentially catastrophic situation, and I think we can look to Buffer as a great example. In days of old,  proactive communication might require contacting an industry journalist, scheduling a press conference or taking out an ad in a relevant publication. With today’s digital tools, you can respond to the crisis in real time, as it’s happening.

Here are my quick tips for diffusing a crisis situation:

  • Be humble.
  • Respond immediately.
  • Tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
  • Don’t feed the trolls. There will be pot-stirrers that try to egg you on to doing something stupid. Focus your efforts on people genuinely impacted and/or raising legitimate concerns.
  • Be human. Be relatable. Make sure your audience knows you are just as frustrated as they are.
  • Emphasize solutions.
  • Have a plan. All of this becomes much easier to deal with if you have detailed response plans.

 Your goal should be to make your great response and customer service the lead story of the day, not the horrible mistake your company made. What are some of your favorite examples of crisis-handling-done-right? Share with us in the comment section below!


Meghan SullivanWith a decade of marketing experience, Meghan Sullivan is a Senior Consultant at Kuno Creative and is passionate about developing and executing inbound marketing strategies for her clients. When sheís not doing that, sheís probably curled up on the couchwith her dog and iPad, or exploring Clevelandís incredible food scene. Connect with Meghan on Twitter or LinkedIn.


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