Avoid These Cringe-Worthy Crisis Communications Errors

You don’t have to be a communications professional to cringe when you read certain emails and social media posts today. In the new COVID-19 world we find ourselves, it can be difficult for businesses to know what to say, when to say it and how often to say it to their clients and the public. Everyone wants to jump in with a message, look for revenue opportunities or offer helpful advice, but some do it better than others.

Below we offer common mistakes and some tips to avoid them.

4 Mistakes to Avoid When Communicating During a Crisis:

  1. Not adjusting scheduled social media posts in light of new circumstances. This should be an automatic step whether you’re facing a global pandemic or a crisis isolated to your business. Make sure you read them all, and then delete and edit them to be relevant and tasteful in the context of new circumstances.
  2. Going ahead with planned announcements without considering how they will be perceived. You may be excited about your latest opening or product launch, but such an announcement may be ignored or — worse — perceived as insensitive and opportunistic when you do it. Timing is everything.
  3. Being opportunistic. There is a difference between offering sincere help during difficult times and being perceived as trying to make an extra buck when others are suffering. It’s all about perceptions.
  4. Pitching related stories to the media that are just in very bad taste and opportunistic. Just take a look at this piece by Mashable to see PR people at their worst. PR pros should be able to know when they have an expert who can make a real contribution to a conversation and when it’s just a bad idea.

5 Things to Consider When Messaging:

How do you know whether your message will be well received or will make you appear careless and opportunistic?

  1. Put it in perspective. COVID-19, for example, is a global pandemic with unprecedented and tragic consequences. People are dying and more will die. Many more will lose their jobs, businesses will suffer and many will face economic and personal hardship. Most of us are scared and worried. Think about this when messaging and make sure your messages are in touch with the current reality.
  2. Make sure it’s relevant. In the context of the above, what is relevant? For example, this blog is being written to help prevent businesses from making mistakes when communicating during the current and future crises. That seems relevant to our audience and a way we can help.
  3. Does it address what your audience’s needs. Ask yourself if you’re tooting your own horn, going through the motions or really addressing what your clients, employees and partners need to know. Sometimes, as in the current environment when our mailboxes are full of COVID-19 messages, what your audience needs is a message as simple as “We’re here for you.”
  4. What are others doing? You don’t want to follow the crowd necessarily, but seeing what others in your industry are doing can help guide your decisions about what to do or what not to do.
  5. Test it. There no time for focus groups, but try running your message by a long-time partner or client who you trust and get their reaction.

Socially Irresponsible

Some small business owners don’t believe in using experts for social media engagement and content development. They see the practice as novel and unproven – until it isn’t.

Such is the case of The Union Street Guest House in Hudson, N.Y. This picturesque small town inn quickly discovered the demonstrative impact of social media when comments about a fines-for-reviews policy hit the inn’s Facebook page and Yelp, the popular online review site.

According to an ABC News story resulting from the social media dust-up, the inn claims its “policy” was posted to its website as a tongue-in-cheek response to a wedding from years ago and should have been taken down. The policy in essence stated bridal parties would be fined $500, taken from deposit monies, for each negative review the inn might receive connected to a particular wedding or event.

A Google search for the inn's name brings with it a wealth of negative online content that will impact the business' bottom line.

A Google search for the inn’s name brings with it a wealth of negative online content that will impact the business’ bottom line.

Unfortunately, a simple Google search of the inn’s name now produces both a link to the inn’s website, as well as countless social media and news articles referencing this not-so-amusing policy.

The result is a Search Engine Optimization nightmare for the inn coupled with a runaway train of negative comments on its Facebook page (more than 200 at this writing; although it appears the inn may now be deleting posts from its Facebook page).

Since this firestorm hit mainstream media, the inn's Facebook page has been inundated with negative posts.

Since this firestorm hit mainstream media, the inn’s Facebook page has been inundated with negative posts.

The news coverage and social media firestorm – with only a half-hearted response from management that appears to have since been deleted  – have created a massive public relations problem to overcome. This isn’t the type of crisis you wait out. And without a strategy for responding to and recovering from this communications nightmare, The Union Street Guest House is likely to see a steep decline in business, assuming it has the wherewithal to survive at all.

Small businesses are successful because they do what they do well. Where they often fail is when they try to do something outside of their expertise.

By consulting with a social media professional or brand content specialist, small businesses can avoid errors – even tongue-in-cheek responses – that might not seem substantial at the time, but with an extra set of trained eyes, can be seen for the potential disasters they are and thus avoided. Alternatively, bringing in the professionals after a crisis has erupted is not optimal, but it can mean the difference between staying in business or going under.

Most freelancers or public relations agencies can find equitable arrangements with small businesses that won’t break the bank, and can avoid or attempt to correct business-ending mistakes.

For a free consultation on how working with a public relations agency can help protect and promote your business, please contact me at rhughes@kimballpr.com.