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Embrace the Calm Before a Storm to Protect Your Brand’s Reputation

Ad Age CMO Blog Hero

Every day, we see brands getting caught in unfortunate situations: active shooter, data breach, rogue spokesperson, operational catastrophe, product recall, offensive advertisement, discrimination lawsuit, an executive behaving badly, natural disaster - I’ve seen it all in my 20+ years handling crisis communications for clients.

I recently participated on an Ad Age event panel to discuss what a Chief Marketing Officer can do when their brands face a crisis. Rather than diving into a specific crisis plaguing the headlines right now, we intentionally focused the discussion on actionable advice to the CMO audience. Here are a few key takeaways from that lively conversation:  

  1. Plan for what you can anticipate. Talk to risk and compliance, do the scenario playbook, write the holding statements, and draft the Q&A. The best outcome is that work is never needed, but you and your team will build muscle mass through that process which will prepare you to better handle those scenarios and others that are similar. It will also give leadership confidence that your team is actively prepared to support business continuity and reputation management should a crisis happen. 

  1. Have a north star and stick to it. These are the moments when your purpose statement and corporate values are put to the test. It should be more than a page on your website, it should be the ethos that personifies your brand and permeates your business practices. Trust and confidence are lost during crisis response if actions are anything less than authentic and not in alignment with the brand’s values. Know where those lines are drawn.  

  1. Data helps manage leaders’ emotions. The definition of a crisis is one where the business – or its reputation – is on the line. That can get rather emotional in the C-suite. Do we respond? How much should we say? Who should speak? Fortunately, crisis comms today is both an art and a science. Analytics can help arm you with insights about the arc of the narrative, who has influence and who does not, and what message is likely to resonate. Allow data to inform your counsel and the decision making.   

  1. It's all about your stakeholders. Your stakeholders always mattered, but it’s never been more important to understand what motivates and connects them to your brand on an emotional level. Many of the societal issues that companies are struggling to navigate today are highly nuanced. The decision about how your brand should show up (or not) can be informed by stakeholder mapping, which will help you understand the hearts, minds and expectations of those who have a stake in your business. 

  1. Team chemistry matters. You put a lot of effort into assembling the right skills and personalities on your team. Do the same for the agency crisis team that you hire. Does it seem like the team members work together consistently, or are they cobbled together from disparate parts of a network? Do they present an aligned recommendation, or do they have trouble building consensus? Ensure your outside crisis team has been battle-tested and work with them on crisis prep so that they learn your business during calm waters. 

Some crises are impossible to anticipate – it's simply bad luck. We learn what a brand is made of by how they handle it. Other situations feel like the company should have been ready for something like this, and leadership could have planned better to minimize the impact on the business. Taking some meaningful steps to plan for challenging scenarios, to define brand values and purpose and to better understand those who have a stake in the business can enable brands to make better decisions when their reputation is on the line.

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