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Crisis Communication Guide: How Top Brands Handled COVID-19 & More

From natural disasters, environmental catastrophes and terrorist attacks to product recalls, cybersecurity breaches and global pandemics, a crisis can arise unexpectedly, regardless of the industry you’re in.

In this article, we’ll share everything you need to know about crisis management. We’ll cover how to create a crisis communication strategy and look at inspirational examples of how well-known brands handled operations in times of crisis.

What Is Crisis Management?

Crisis management is the process your brand develops to improve reaction time and response to an unexpected disruptive event.

A crisis can affect your market position, business reputation, profit or turnover, along with trust and loyalty among your stakeholders, when mishandled.

The 3 Stages Of Crisis Management

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic took most companies for a loop.

A 2021 Global Crisis Survey by PWC on the impact of COVID-19 revealed that 95% of business executives say their crisis management capabilities need improvement.

Are you part of this majority?

Let’s look at the three stages of crisis management and the actions to consider during each of them:

  • Pre-crisis: In pre-crisis management, you plan measures to minimize the chances of an internal crisis, and keep an eye on early signs of risk events that may turn into a potential crisis.
  • Crisis response: In this stage, you develop a detailed process and solutions plan to address potential adverse events. This includes specific response strategies to reach your stakeholders, customers, investors, employees, suppliers, community groups and more.
  • Post-crisis: During post-crisis, you evaluate your response to the crisis and take necessary actions, whether that includes adjusting your plan, making changes inside your organizations or something else.
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What Is Crisis Communication?

Crisis communication includes the protocols, systems and technologies your organization uses to communicate with your consumers, staff, media and partners during a crisis.

Crisis communication is a component of your crisis management strategy and it is used to:

  • Keep staff, partners and public informed
  • Prevent the spread of misinformation
  • Maintain brand credibility and trust

Crisis Communication Examples & What We Can Learn From Them

Let’s look at four examples of how well-known brands faced and managed crises and emerged stronger after them.

1. Johnson & Johnson

The crisis: In autumn 1982, seven people died in Chicago after taking Johnson & Johnson’s market-leading, over-the-counter painkiller, Tylenol.

Over 90% of the American population heard the story within the first week of the crisis, through first newspapers, magazines and hours of TV time dedicated to it.

The reaction: Johnson & Johnson immediately alerted their consumers via advertising and the media not to consume any Tylenol product.

The company stopped the production and advertisement of Tylenol and ordered a national withdrawal of the product.

An investigation by authorities concluded that Tylenol was tampered with in Chicago. The capsules were stolen from stores, poisoned and deposited back onto shelves.

Within six weeks, the company designed the first, triple-lock tamper-resistant container.

Within a few months, Tylenol regained its market share. Johnson & Johnson strengthened their reputation and brand awareness through a fast response and adequate measures.

The lesson: The way Johnson & Johnson responded to the Tylenol crisis is widely credited as an example of effective crisis communication. The company focused on values instead of short-term sales and profit.

Johnson & Johnson showed that their customers’ needs came first and demonstrated openness, responsibility and empathy.

This increased the trust both in Tylenol as a product and Johnson & Johnson as a company.

2. Pepsi 

The crisis: In 1993, a couple from Washington claimed they found a syringe in a bottle of Diet Pepsi. The complaint was shortly followed by a second similar case.

With complaints pouring in, the company faced accusations about the safety of their drinks, and the crisis threatened to ruin Pepsi’s reputation.

The reaction: In response to the allegation, Pepsi created a video campaign showing how the production and canning process worked — to prove that such a mistake simply wasn’t possible.

Eventually, a video emerged that showed a woman putting a syringe into a can in her own grocery store.

Daily updates, press conferences and close work with the FDA added to Pepsi’s response on the situation.

The lesson: Much like the Jonson & Johnson crisis, the cause was outside of Pepsi’s control. The admirable aspect of their response was transparency.

By allowing customers to look ‘behind the curtain’ and showing them the company’s safe production measures, audiences could understand Pepsi’s perspective and begin to question the allegations.

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3. KFC

The crisis: In 2018, due to a delay in chicken meat delivery, KFC’s restaurants in the UK and Ireland faced an unprecedented crisis with numerous complaints from customers.

The reaction: The company’s marketing team placed unconventional ads in newspapers. They threw caution to the wind and rearranged the letters of KFC into a curse word – FCK.

The company allowed customers to track the delivery status of chicken meat in their local restaurants. Every campaign used a consistent, humorous brand voice, which was a crucial part of recovering the company’s reputation.

The lesson: KFC showcased expert crisis management by owning up to the negatives of the situation and providing a clear and transparent response.

The fast food chain recognized the frustrations of consumers, addressed their questions and provided a tool to monitor the situation and provide objective information.

4. American Red Cross

The crisis: In 2011, an American Red Cross employee accidentally posted a tweet on the organization’s account instead of his own.

It said:

“Ryan found two more 4-bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch beer…. when we drink we do it right #gettngslizzerd”

The reaction: The American Red Cross didn’t ignore the tweet, trying to pretend it never happened. Instead, they took a humorous approach, and posted a tweet in reply:

The unusual situation got the attention of Dogfish Head craft brewery. They joined in the conversation and encouraged people to make donations using the hashtag #gettngslizzerd.

The lesson: The American Red Cross managed to mitigate a potentially embarrassing situation and spin it into a positive one that even brought benefits in visibility and donations.

This example emphasizes why organizations should prioritize authenticity in the face of a challenge.

Communication During A Global Crisis: The COVID-19 Pandemic

Fast forward to 2021 when the world’s most used word is “vax” relating to the unprecedented COVID-19 global crisis.

Businesses around the world faced financial losses in the face of lockdowns, border closings, travel bans, hybrid working models and more.

Hospitality, higher education and industrial manufacturing were among the sectors that suffered the most between March 2020 and February 2021.

PWC 2021 survey on Covid impact upon industries
[Source: PWC]
The beginning of the pandemic brought catastrophic results that few could have imagined. Businesses strained to keep communication with employees and clients open, empathic and optimistic.

Here’s how companies around the world responded to the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • In its news section, Marriott International said that the company had seen a decline of 52.1% in revenue per available room (RevPar) in Greater China in January and February 2020.
  • Between January and March 2020, Beijing saw a 96% decrease in bookings, while Shanghai experienced a 71% decrease.

  • China, the biggest global supplier of vehicle parts and accessories with $34.8 billion in yearly exports, shut down the factories nationwide, disrupting the automotive global supply chain.
  • Between March, 9-6 2020, Germany reduced its flights by 18.2%, Switzerland by 15.4% and Saudi Arabia by 15.3%.
Flight reduction due to Covid in March 2020 graph
[Source: OAG Schedules Analyser]
  • American Airlines stopped the operation of 55,000 flights globally. As a result, the company saw a decrease of $1.5 billion in revenue in March, compared to the same month last year. [Source: USA Today]

  • The shipment of iOS devices in China decreased from 1.27 million in February 2019 to 494,000 in February 2020, potentially cost Apple billions of dollars.
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Although recovery has been slow, boarders are opening, lockdowns are ceasing to exist and people around the world are returning to work.

COVID-19 showed the world how vulnerable businesses are to an unexpected crisis and how important it is to be prepared and flexible.

Some industries even managed to identify new business opportunities, incorporate the insights learned in the form of long-term strategies and strengthen their response plans.

For example, In 2020, the multinational sportswear corporation, Nike, closed its physical doors in the US, Canada, Western Europe and New Zealand.

Due to the brand’s flexibility and understanding of consumer behaviors, Nike reported a 36% increase in digital sales in March 2020 and an overall revenue increase of 11% thanks to eCommerce.

News on Nike increasing digital sales during Covid
[Source: News.Nike.com]
Industries like eCommerce, gaming, online communication services and streaming and recruitment platforms that were able to facilitate shopping and provide entertainment during lockdowns recorded new peaks in revenue and user base.

  • With almost a third of the world’s population committed to self-isolation or quarantine, the average number of weekly game downloads in China rose by 80% in February 2020 compared to the total 2019 average weekly downloads.
  • Zoom went from $1.2 million net income in 2019, to over $15.3 million at the dawn of 2020.
  • For the first three months of 2020. Netflix got 16 million new sign-ups.

Facing the new normal, companies across the globe have identified new business models and opportunities.

In addition, companies around the world have invested in crisis communication strategies and crisis management activities.

5 Most Effective Crisis Communication Strategies

So how can you ensure you’re prepared for a crisis?

Create a detailed communication strategy to successfully pass your message to your audiences during critical times — and receive their feedback.

Here are the steps to follow:

  1. Develop a crisis plan: Set strict rules and instructions to guide your business during the crisis period. Include specific actions and communication examples referring to your prospects, clients and employees.
  2. Build a crisis communication/management team: Select the team members that will communicate with your clients and employees and provide support during a critical situation. Ensure each team member knows their responsibilities and has clear instructions how to act. Define the chain of command so that no information is lost.
  3. Identify a spokesperson: Choose a person from your team to represent your company’s opinion and position across all communication channels. Having good communication skills is a must.
  4. Choose your communication channels: Find your audiences’ preferred communication platforms. When a crisis comes, use those channels to spread your message.
  5. Analyze your audience’s feedback: Monitor your audience’s engagement and feedback. Try to understand how people feel about your position during a critical situation.
Stages of creating a crisis plan
[Source: Maryville University]

Crisis Communication In Times Of Disasters: How To Engage Your Audiences During Times Of Uncertainty

One of the most difficult tasks for businesses is to maintain proper communication with their audiences during a crisis.

Whether in times of a natural disaster, local emergency or a serious virus like the COVID-19, find a way to stay in touch and encourage engagement. This is important for several reasons:

  • Brand trust: Your audience needs to know you’re reliable and will be available to help them pull through, in any way you can.
  • Brand loyalty: Once you build trust, your customers will be more invested in their bond with your brand.
  • Corporate responsibility: Although you may not be responsible for the crisis, you are in charge of handling communication throughout difficult periods. Make sure you demonstrate involvement, empathy and an active effort to alleviate the situation.

Your audience will watch your brand closely during a crisis, waiting for you to show your true character.

Here are a few tips that can help you handle crisis communications effectively:

  • Act quickly: First impressions count. Your audience expects to hear from you. Make sure you show optimism, share good wishes and tell your audiences how the situation has affected you. Express emotion and involvement.
  • Be compassionate and considerate: The crisis may affect your prospects and clients. They might be scared, stressed and confused. Show that you care and understand what they are going through. Once they feel your empathy, they will be more open to perceive your message.
  • Describe what actions you’re taking to deal with this situation: Be transparent. Set an objective and share how you plan to commit to it.
  • Try to help: Find a way to reassure your clients that you support them. Improve your customer care services and increase your social media and website availability. Implement mechanisms so that your clients can reach you in a fast and easy way.
  • Take a serious and involved tone: Even if your brand voice is typically entertaining, the situation demands you use a serious tone. Don’t make any jokes. Remember that some of these people may be affected by the situation. Do not turn them away by using an inappropriate tone.
  • Don’t take advantage of the situation: Be careful not to use the situation to increase your profit. Don’t dump products or increase prices due to shortage. As successful as it can seem in the short term, it will affect your business negatively in the long run.
  • Communicate regularly: Share regularly content on your website and social media profiles to keep your audience engaged. Don’t focus on self-promotion but provide useful tips that can help your users cope with the situation.

Crisis Communication Takeaways: New Opportunities After A Crisis

Crisis communication is a mandatory response mechanism in case of unexpected events that disrupt your normal operation and carry risks for your brand reputation.

An effective crisis communication strategy can help you keep your audiences engaged while increasing brand recognition, trust and loyalty.

Some of the key crisis communication tactics to employ are:

  • Timely response
  • Empathy
  • Assistance
  • Respect

At Digital Silk, we offer business consulting services for any event that may put your business at risk. Our experienced team took part in growing multimillion-dollar businesses during the global recession of 2008.

We can help you build a communication management strategy — and craft sincere messages to your audience once a crisis arrives. From social media posts to crisis press release and post-crisis announcements, our experts will ensure you embrace new opportunities and emerge stronger.

Looking to develop an effective communication strategy?Request a quote!

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