Why a cross-functional response team is key in a crisis

To be properly prepared for a crisis, a company must have a cross-functional response team in place.

To be properly prepared for a crisis, a company must have a cross-functional response team in place, connecting its PR, digital or social media, marketing, legal, and customer support departments, experts said at the Crisis Strategies Summit for In-House and Outside Counsel in New York on Thursday.

"A cross-functional response team is the new model and the new norm; this is what you need to do going forward, versus the silos in place in the past that have separated legal from PR and social media," explained event speaker Jeff Eller, a former Clinton White House crisis comms specialist. Eller left his role as EVP and co-chair of Hill+Knowlton Strategies' global crisis practice in the spring to support GM with its response to the automaker’s ignition switch crisis.

Nationwide Insurance, for instance, has a social media moderation team that is on-call 24/7. If a potential issue arises, the team gets together to analyze it, see how it is trending, and discuss the best response, said the company’s associate VP and associate general counsel Scott Linek.

"We look for the real meat of what is being posted [on social media], and then that team reaches out to other teams within the company," Linek said. "For example, if there were any employment issues, specifically posted by staffers, we would get HR folks involved, because then we could potentially run into other issues."

Once all teams are aware of the issue, it is then "triaged" to determine whether Nationwide will respond or not, Linek added.

The downward spiral that can occur when a company has a disjointed comms function was highlighted by Uber’s recent crisis, which stemmed from controversial remarks made by an Uber exec about theoretically investigating critical journalists.

Companies also need to invest in and understand the tools that will help them listen to what people are saying about them on social media so they can properly separate "signal from noise," Eller added.

However, he noted that the correct response to a crisis is not pure science and or art.

"Science will help you, but the art is in knowing when and knowing what to say," he said.

Although it is important for companies to be well-versed in social media, traditional media should not be ignored when responding to a crisis.

"If traditional media has bitten into a story, it is game over, and you have to respond," said David Meltzer, American Red Cross’ general counsel and chief international officer, at the panel.

"Traditional media still very much matters. It is not that they have fallen off the list; there are just many more actors on the list that we need to pay attention to," he added.

Eller explained that consumer-facing brands live on social media, but companies that face regulatory and legislative pressure from Washington, DC are more likely to place more emphasis on traditional media outreach. He cited airbag-maker Takata, which has been requested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to expand a recall due to safety concerns, as one such company.

"What the Wall Street Journal and New York Times write about Takata really matters in terms of where the legislation and regulation will go because that group in Washington, DC overweighs [those publications]," he said.

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