The Harbinger Group

Communicating Through Crisis: Expert Strategies for Protecting Your Brand

The way an organization communicates in a crisis can be the difference between weathering the storm and suffering irreparable damage to its reputation. Whether it’s a natural disaster, a cyber attack, or a scandal involving a high-profile partner, having a solid crisis communication plan in place is essential. The Harbinger Group’s team of crisis communications experts has decades of combined experience helping company executives navigate the choppy waters of crisis. In this blog, our team shares their top strategies for effective crisis communication.

Proactively Create a Crisis Communications Plan

Former President John F. Kennedy once said, “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” A similar approach is true for crisis communications. The first step in effective crisis communications is to have a plan in place before any issues arise. A solid crisis communications plan serves as a roadmap for your company’s response, ensuring you’re prepared to act quickly and decisively when a crisis strikes.

At its core, a crisis communications plan should include:

Assemble Your Crisis Dream Team

When a crisis hits, time is of the essence. That’s why it’s important to identify your key players in advance. 

“It’s really having that team of people who are most appropriate to address the situation, and that isn’t necessarily a huge team,” Kellie Kennedy, Executive Vice President of Strategic Earned Marketing at The Harbinger Group, said. “It’s those key decision-makers and spokespeople, the ones who are most familiar with the situation, who have all the facts at hand and have the authority to move important next steps forward.”

Your crisis dream team should include decision-makers, spokespeople, lawyers, and subject matter experts who can quickly gather accurate information.

“You want to make sure you have the facts, so you know what really happened. With accurate information, you can clearly communicate with key audiences about the  situation and outline how the company is addressing the issue,” said Kennedy.

Craft Messages with Care

In the heat of a crisis, it can be tempting to rush out a response. But accuracy is more important than firing off a response in a crisis situation. 

“You never want to make things up, and you don’t want two sets of messaging,” said Kennedy. 

Consistency is key—your messaging should be clear and concise, with the same main points communicated across all audiences. Transparency and empathy are also crucial.

“Being transparent is huge. You never want communications to be false or misleading,” Kennedy said. “If you don’t have the information yet, you have to be honest., “We don’t have these details yet, but we want to be thorough and accurate and need more time.’”

One example of a lack of transparency in a crisis response unfolded in the days following the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 23, 2023. Norfolk Southern’s CEO Alan Shaw was widely criticized for his lack of transparency and empathy in how he communicated with the public after the derailment. 

The freight train’s derailment caused several tanker cars carrying hazardous materials to rupture, which ignited a fire that covered the village of East Palestine in thick, toxic smoke. Many residents suffered nausea, headaches, and rashes in the aftermath of the chemical spill.

When the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced they would launch an investigation into the train derailment, Norfolk Southern responded in a vague tweet.

Communicating Through Crisis: Expert Strategies for Protecting Your Brand

Norfolk Southern’s CEO also failed to issue a prompt response empathizing with the people living in East Palestine. Shaw first responded to his company’s crisis in a letter on February 16 — 13 days after the derailment occurred.  

“My simple answer is that we are here and will stay here for as long as it takes to ensure your safety and to help East Palestine recover and thrive,” Shaw said. “As we continue site clean-up, the NTSB moves forward with its investigation, and necessary environmental testing is carried out, I promise to keep you updated every step of the way.”

Along with a number of additional missteps in the company’s response to the disaster, these communications from Norfolk Southern were not nearly enough to satisfy East Palestine residents, Congress, and the general public.

Master the Social Media Minefield

Social media has transformed crisis communications, enabling the rapid spread of information and misinformation. Accuracy and consistency continue to play vital roles when your team is mapping out your social strategy during a crisis.

“Whatever messaging you’re putting out on social media should match the messaging that is being developed overall for the situation,” Kennedy said.

Best practices for social media crisis communication include:
  • Identifying keywords and hashtags to monitor: Work with your team to compile a list of keywords related to your brand and the situation at hand. Research hashtags that may be populating different social platforms relating to the crisis and your company. Be prepared to edit and modify this list as the crisis unfolds.
  • Automating monitoring to get real-time updates: Utilize social listening tools like Google Alerts, Sprout Social, Mention, Cision, and Muck Rack and set up email notifications to come directly to your inbox. If the situation warrants, follow specific social media profiles or accounts and enable notifications to be alerted when they post updates.
  • Strategically engaging on negative posts: Draft a sample of responses to use to reply to negative posts. You may also determine there are specific situations where the best response is no response at all.
  • Directing people to official statements and resources: Organize a list of official statements from your company and partners in managing the crisis, along with any other useful resources for the media or general public. List them on a page that’s easy to find on your website, and your team might even find it beneficial to share the webpage on social media.

By proactively monitoring and engaging on social media, organizations can better control the narrative and mitigate the spread of damaging rumors or speculation.

Safeguard strategic partnerships

In today’s interconnected business landscape, a crisis involving a strategic partner can put your own organization’s reputation on the line. Your company’s communications team will want to think carefully about when to distance themselves from a troubled partner. 

“If the allegations are quite serious and widespread, the best choice is distancing your brand, even if it means losing out on your sponsorship money,” Eileen Rochford, CEO of The Harbinger Group, said. “Remove your signage and association from your own website, but also say why you’re doing that.”

One example of a situation where a company would be smart to consider distancing itself from a strategic partner is the hazing scandal at Northwestern University. The news first broke in July of 2023, when the university’s football coach, Pat Fitzgerald, received a two-week suspension after an investigation into a hazing complaint in his program. Just a few days later after more disturbing details behind the scandal emerged, Fitzgerald was fired. Additional Northwestern University athletic programs were implicated as details continued to bubble to the surface in a series of interviews and lawsuits. 

This scandal impacted the school’s numerous corporate sponsorships and strategic partnerships, prompting many donors and sponsors to pull funding and sponsorships and distance themselves from the university.

In a crisis, communication can be your most powerful tool for protecting your brand. By assembling a crisis dream team, carefully crafting messages, mastering social media, and safeguarding strategic partnerships, you can emerge from challenging situations with your reputation intact.

But crisis communication isn’t something you can improvise on the fly. It takes advance planning, clear protocols, and experienced professionals at the helm. That’s where The Harbinger Group comes in, with decades of experience and a proven track record, we’re here to help you navigate any crisis. Check out the strategy and earned media services we offer and schedule a consultation with our expert team.

You can also check out our CEO, Eileen Rochford’s podcast, Can You Hear Me?, with co-host Rob Johnson of Rob Johnson Communications to learn more about communicating clearly during a crisis and what to do when a marketing partner is in crisis. Be sure to subscribe to the Can You Hear Me? Podcast so you don’t miss a future episode.