Decoding a Communications Crisis: Strategies for Colleagues, Business Partners, and Customers.

It is 08:30 AM on a casual Wednesday morning, and you get a text from a senior executive that makes your heart stop. There was a screenshot of a customer complaint that is going viral and about to escalate.

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The dreaded messages start coming in...

Five minutes pass, and you're scurrying for answers and solutions to the issue to send an internal message that you're on it. Things continue to pile up.

For some, this is just another Tuesday at the office. For others, this is a total meltdown DEFCON 1, where all hands are on deck.

This is the problem.

We have no shared language for what constitutes a crisis - particularly on social media. And there are varying ways that people seek to solve social media crises. 

Some will say, "Be quiet and ignore will disappear." 

Some will throw the full force of 100 finger-soldiers to tweet niceties about the brand.

Some will engage substantively with the root cause and seek to put it to rest - even though it takes time.

The first challenge is that there needs to be a shared understanding of a crisis. This is what I want to tackle in this two-part series as I introduce a new framework for Nendo to help brands tackle crisis communications in the digital age on the African continent. 

"Your Crisis is not My Crisis" is something I've heard said (privately) among teams when doing trainings. This is part of the challenge of silos and the internal dissonance that can crop up at the worst time when the business's reputation is in jeopardy.

There are four ways to define a crisis, according to Nendo. And like spice (or pain) levels, each person has a different tolerance level.

Crisis of a Colleague

Many crises stem from meeting internal expectations. If you have a boss or senior executive on a short leash (politically speaking - they can't afford to mess up), then even a thorny customer issue can become a crisis. Suppose you have a senior who emphasises reputation and optics on specific channels. If the CEO has an active Twitter presence, some teams skew towards that platform. This is despite the platform being outnumbered by 7:1 compared to Facebook, and most teams, in Nendo's experience, have more Facebook queries than Twitter ones. 

A crisis of a colleague can come in 3 ways:
  • A senior - a person you report to (either with their perception or reality) interprets a crisis.
  • A peer - someone on the same team as you may be having a tough day, which can cause a tough shift or day/week for the entire team.
  • A direct report (or skip-level) - someone who is several rungs 'below' you on the organisational chart.

Each of these requires a different set of tactics to diagnose and address. From the business perspective, there can be a few scenarios that make this complex: For example, when the business has responded - to an upset customer - and yet the situation continues to escalate (like a wildfire online - the trend continues, the screenshot travels and more people complain despite engaging with the disgruntled consumer).

Crisis of a Business

The second type of crisis has more to do with the business itself.

We often prepare for good weather and pleasant days in this digital age. We see graphs on social media constantly go one way - up. We get excited at screenshots of social media influencer engagements going well - everybody did what they were supposed to do. But there are times when the business itself can undergo a crisis. This can happen from an internal narrative or an external narrative. We seldom think of internal communications as causing crises, but it occasionally does.

Internal comms is often ignored in crisis but requires comms too - 
  • A beloved high-profile executive is leaving (and it is not going well with the internal narrative on how and why). This can affect the culture of the company.
  • An announcement of layoffs and restructuring is made; it breeds resentment and consternation and lowers morale.
  • An anonymous staff member leaks information to a ' thumbs-for-hire' blogger, rattling the staff and organisation from the inside. It begins a witch-hunt internally for who might have leaked the information.
External comms is where we often focus (and with good reason - the paybacks are significant and can be costly, especially for publicly traded companies).
  • A mention in the mainstream media causes problems and challenges with negative company coverage.
  • A social media interaction with a customer goes ignored, unseen, or goes off the rails, and they get abusive and explosive.
  • The company is being targeted in a tactical assault on its reputation by paid 'keyboard warriors.'

These all affect the business and can cause harm that takes a long time to repair. One of the issues I've noted is a false assumption that a tech-savvy customer complaining is 'being paid by a competitor' when it is sometimes clear they are frustrated beyond measure. The scepticism and cynicism that this breeds internally can be harmful and stop the sometimes painful learning opportunity to fix the root cause and face the fact that the business has challenges.

The Crisis of a Customer (Spoken and Unspoken)

The worst type of crisis of a customer - happening right now as you sit here is the one you can't see or hear. Your customers have made up their minds and are voting with their wallets. They have decided to leave. You'll find out because they churn. 

This is an 'unspoken crisis' because you don't even know it is happening. It is like a poisonous nerve gas in the air that is untraceable to the nose.

You only know once it is too late. 

The second-worst type of crisis is when a customer expresses intense and unflattering frustration. Sometimes they are saying it and not getting any traction (as we encounter at Nendo with social media listening).

When Nendo created our "Succeeding at Customer Experience Online" course a few years ago, one of the pillars of that training was an understanding that goes against our instincts to understand consumers.

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Nendo's framework for understanding what motivates a customer to post online.

When customers come in private, they want an answer:

They want their issue solved - preferably now. They will use channels such as:

  • Direct/private messages and the inbox.
  • Phone calls
  • Emails

When customers come in public, they want an audience:

They want public acknowledgement and accountability and for others to see. They use channels such as:

  • The public Twitter timeline
  • They @-reply and @-mention your Facebook page
  • They post public comments - even replying to other customers

One of the worst versions is when they are tired (from expectations not being fulfilled) and go as far as to talk among themselves. This is part of the value of social media listening because it presents a chance to get unsolicited feedback on customer experience. 

For example, at Nendo, with market intelligence, we can solve exciting challenges such as:

  • Predicting power outages based on where they've frequently been reported over time based on tweets and public data.
  • Analysing a bank's weaknesses from the chronic complaints they receive on their social media pages.
  • Evaluating customers' honest opinions on home internet services based on complaints and predicting customer churn and intent to join.

So crises, as challenging as they can be, provide interesting fodder for data analysis when they occur on social media. Some brands are used to customers being loud, brash, and upset for long stretches. While some conservative brands only see this every few months and get shocked when it happens. 

There can be fear with engaging such customers, especially the most vocal ones but fear not; an upset customer you engage with directly and seek to serve can become more loyal after the interaction (despite how uncomfortable it may feel or seem at the time).* 

In my next article, I'll unpack how you can use Nendo's 5-step framework (Called MELTS) to rank your readiness for a crisis. The only thing worse than being in a crisis is not being prepared for one.

* Source: Guy Winch quoted here

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