With the creepy-clown hysteria and multiple reports of sightings sweeping across the nation, McDonald’s has decided to hide its famous mascot, Ronald. The company said Tuesday that it’s “mindful” of the clown sightings and its paring back Ronald McDonald’s public appearance as a result. Ronald McDonald, with his clown-like painted face, red wig, and yellow and red-stripped jumpsuit, has long been the face of McDonald’s and the ambassador of its brand. Day after day since the first sighting in August, all clowns have been getting a bum rap. So much so that a “Clown Lives Matter” march is scheduled for 6:30 pm in Tucson, Arizona, October 15th. It may take weeks and possibly months before the chaos will begin to settle.
The fact is, brands can get dinged and sometimes damaged every day, many times for unpredictable events outside of their control. It could easily happen through a news event, a bad decision, a large mistake, and even the nefarious act of disgruntled employees or carelessness to damage or destroy a brand. McDonald’s clearly doesn’t want you to connect the friendly Ronald McDonald with the creepy clown sightings but their brand ambassador is caught up in the mix just because he is considered part of the clown family.
Unfortunately, no brand is immune from a crisis virus and every company should be prepared with a thorough, comprehensive and well documented crisis communication plan so that every
one within the organization knows how to respond when the unfortunate does happen. Think about it, you wouldn’t wait for a fire to erupt before running to the store to buy a fire extinguisher would you?
A good plan will serve as a play-by-play for how to handle everything.
How does one start to create a good plan? Make a list of your potential vulnerabilities, or those things that could go wrong that would cause a stir among the media and public based on the industry your business is in. Once identified, you can plan the best way to react for each unique occurrence. For example, if you are a bank, how would you respond if there was a breach of security exposing the personal financial information of a large group of your customers?
A good plan will tell anyone in your organization how to handle the media (including social media) and any public/customer outrage but it is important for your company to have a spokesperson trained on how and when to deliver information internally to employees, and externally to the media. The way the company handles the crisis and its aftermath is just as significant as the crisis itself. Once you have your plan, it is beneficial to run several practice drills so that everyone involved understands their individual roles during a brand crisis.
Always monitor your brand no matter where it lives.
You should also have a system in place to have your brand continuously monitored online. Many times, small and seemingly insignificant issues have the potential to turn into large, problems. Like a cancer, the longer such issues are ignored, the more difficult they are to cure or remedy. Small things need to be quickly nipped in the bud before they become large uncontrollable monsters.
With small things and large things in mind, create and implement a comprehensive training program to avoid accidental crises, set expectations and boundaries to prevent unintentional consequence crises, and establish codes of conduct along with consequences of violation to prevent dumb-idea crises.
The easiest way to prevent a crisis is to instill a culture of always doing the right thing no matter what.
Here is a step-by-step guide to creating a brand crisis management playbook.
Step 1: Take a deep breath. When a brand crisis comes about the first thing you need to do is absolutely nothing. Stop, close your eyes, and take five slow deep breaths. Why? You need to be calm; your company and your team is depending on you, and if you’re calm you will be better able to control the situation by keeping everyone else in the company and on the team calm. You make better decisions when you are calm and in control than you do when you are panicked believe it or not. Depending on how things go, you may need to repeat this step a few times.
Step 2: Circle the wagons and gather the troops. Get in touch with all customer facing employees (Account Managers, PR Team, the Social Media Team, Customer Service, Project Managers, etc.). Brief them on what happened, the steps you will follow to react to the issue, initial instructions on how/if they should communicate externally, expected timeline for reaction, and how they can help. I suggest asking each of these folks to begin tracking the brand crisis on their individual channels and keep the team informed of any and all developments.
Step 3: Investigate what happened. Now that you’re calm and everyone’s informed, you need to get the full story. Use your connections in the organization to determine exactly what happened or is happening. You need to know the entire story from an internal perspective, and how your customers perceive the incident externally. This can be the most time consuming step, but also the most important: you should not react to a brand crisis if you don’t know exactly what happened and why it happened or what is still happening.
Step 4: Understand business impact. Is this brand crisis having an immediate impact on business? Will it have a future impact on the business? Before you react, it’s important to know how your decisions will impact the business, revenue and your brand reputation. This step will be very important as you begin to make decisions on messaging and your overall corporate stance on the crisis.
Step 5: LISTEN UP! Use your PR and social media monitoring tools to take the pulse on the reaction of the media, your customers, and your community. This step will tell you if the crisis has made it to the attention of your customers or media yet. From there your goal is to gauge the significance of the brand crisis: just how big is this issue? Are there hundreds of people talking about this incident, or only a few? What is the overall sentiment? Are people supporting you? Is the media reacting? Have any stories been published?
Step 6: Decide on corporate position and messaging. Armed with the full story, how it will impact your business, and a complete picture of the reaction so far, you will have a clear idea of the position your company should take. From there you can write up a quick messaging platform and get buy in from your executive team. Expect to have some back and forth communication with key decision makers, but your research and preparations will be appreciated and make this process smooth.
Step 7: Make decisions on channels of distribution. Based on your corporate positioning and overall messaging you need to determine the channel/s that best deliver your position to your audience. These days there are many channels to consider: you can post on your corporate blog, through social media, in a press release, directly to the media, or a combination of all. When making this decision, keep in mind the basic differences in each channel. Social media is a fantastic choice if you are prepared for a dialogue and accept the fact that it will be hard to control your message completely. A Press release or a blog post are both great options if you want to broadcast and control the conversations around your message. Every situation will be different, and you’ll need to use the info you’ve gathered so far to decide on the best distribution.
Step 8: Get the word out. You’ve done your homework, gotten the buy-in on messaging, and have decided on distribution channel(s). It’s now time to get your message out to the channels you’ve chosen.
Step 9: Monitor reaction and react as needed. Now that your message is out in the world, you need to circle back with your public facing teams and monitor. Is your brand crisis still a crisis?
What happens next will ultimately depend on the reaction of the media, your customers, and your community on social media, etc. As you monitor, keep in mind that it can take a few days for a fire to die down. Depending on the severity of the brand crisis, you will either need to be patient and give it the time it needs, or you may need to step in and offer additional statements or interviews. There are no hard and fast rules and you’ll need to make the call in real time.
Step 10: Learn from the process. No one wants to see a brand crisis pop up, but I promise you one thing: no matter how things go, you will learn something valuable from what has transpired. Everything you learn will help your company understand how to avoid future crisis and will help you to efficiently managing your next crisis. Take what you’ve learned and apply those valuable lessons to the next time you have a fire to extinguish.