Crisis communications lessons from 'Game of Thrones'

Some communications tips to help your brand avoid a public execution.

"You win or you die. There’s no middle ground," goes the oft-quoted saying from the HBO juggernaut Game of Thrones.

While crisis communications may not always be a life-or-death situation, the poor handling of a potentially damaging incident can be the equivalent of a brand’s public execution. This is especially true of negative stories that go viral on social media.

Everyone remembers the notorious leaked phone conversation between the customer service representative for a large cable provider and a disgruntled consumer who wanted to cancel his service. The audio clip spread across the Internet like wildfire. In it, the call agent, clearly following a prepared script, refused to allow the unhappy customer to cancel his service in a painfully redundant call. The company dragged its feet on issuing an apology for the call – and just a few months later, it was back in the doghouse again when an invoice was leaked in which an employee changed a customer’s name to an obscenity. Not long after that, the cable provider was named one of the most "Hated Companies in America."

Staying vigilant about your brand is an endless commitment in today’s always-on world. How can brands weather the arduous battles that play out in the media and ensure a peaceful realm? And, when your brand gets bad press, will it ever stand a second chance at claiming the Iron Throne? Here are some crisis communications tips that even Ned Stark would approve.

Winter is coming
Brands must operate under the assumption that a negative incident – and its accompanying backlash – is lurking around every corner. Are you ready? Planning is everything. In most cases, the worst corporate PR disasters can be traced back to inadequate preparation on the part of the marketing and executive teams. Do you know what your team would do if:

  • A member of your executive team suddenly stepped down?
  • There were layoffs or downsizing?
  • An employee got caught stealing customer data?
  • A customer went to the press, or to social media, with tales of bad service from your company?
  • Your company database was hacked for financial or political reasons?
  • A spokesperson for your company was arrested?

A prepared PR team will have pre-determined plans for these scenarios and more, including media training for senior management and spokespeople.

You know nothing, Jon Snow
It’s impossible to react properly to a crisis until you have all the facts. Issuing a premature statement or denying involvement before all the facts are in just guarantees more trouble. The first step once you’ve learned about a crisis is to perform a situational analysis. For example:

  • What is the basic narrative of the incident?
  • What do the media and the public at large believe happened?
  • If the two questions above have completely different answers, what can you do to bridge the gap between reality and perception?
  • Which communications channels are in need of your immediate attention?
  • How many people are talking about it online and in the media?
  • What is the public reaction to the incident?

Your response plan will be based on getting to the bottom of what’s happened and measuring the impact of the situation.

All men must serve
In Game of Thrones, the Night’s Watch sent messages from The Wall warning about the coming of winter and the danger of the white walkers. But the warnings fell upon deaf ears in Westeros. The lesson? Listen to your team and take its advice and concerns seriously – before it’s too late. Crisis PR works best when there is a well-defined team in place. These team members should be experienced in crisis management and excellent communicators who will rarely be caught off-guard. Make sure your team knows the plan, each person’s role in executing it, and most importantly, when to implement it.

The night is dark and full of terrors
A crisis rarely occurs within the convenient hours of 9 am to 5 pm. Many CMOs tell stories of waking up in the morning to a crisis that built overnight. A perfect example is the Applebee’s social media fiasco involving the firing of a waitress who posted a photo of a customer’s check to Facebook. In the photo, which went viral, a customer declined tipping a fellow waitress, explaining that she "already gives God 10%." An Applebee spokesperson explained why the waitress was fired, and went on with the evening. By 2 am, Applebee’s Facebook page was filled with thousands of angry posters who sided with the waitress. A junior PR person from Applebee’s who wasn’t trained in crisis communications started deleting the comments, which created an even bigger frenzy that sparked calls for boycotts of the chain.

Your crisis communications team must have a strategy for monitoring your brand’s channels after business hours for any mishaps, and bringing the rest of the team up to speed quickly so they can respond appropriately. A low-level employee with access to your social media accounts will not suffice. This might require having an international team in different time zones, or designating a rotating senior team member to be on call on nights and weekends. One thing is certain: the longer a brand takes to become aware of and respond to a crisis, the worse it can get.

The hand should speak with the king’s voice
In Westeros, serving as Hand of the King is the most powerful and deadly job. In a company’s crisis response plan, there should be one individual who serves as the primary spokesperson. This important person should be thoroughly media trained, as he or she will make official statements and answer media questions throughout the crisis. Your brand’s official Hand’s first duty should be to protect the integrity and reputation of the company. All other objectives should flow from that primary goal. This means shutting down any strategy suggestions that go against these basic rules:

  • Avoid the urge to intentionally lie, deny, or hide your brand’s involvement.
  • Ignoring the situation will only escalate it.
  • Don't let the legal team make the decisions. They should be involved only to review your team’s messaging.

The man who passes the sentence swings the sword
In other words, if your brand is at fault, take ownership of the mistake. Passing blame or obfuscating your company’s role in the mishap will escalate the situation and create an atmosphere of mistrust, both with the media and your customers. This is especially true in cases where people were hurt or lives lost. When there is a major problem, an apology issued by the CEO or senior management immediately demonstrates that your company deeply regrets what occurred, understands the gravity of the situation, and is trying to make it right.

A great example of a brand that made it right is Starbucks. The coffee giant launched an ad campaign aimed at the growing Armenian population in Los Angeles. The ads featured women dressed in traditional Armenian garb drinking Starbucks’ coffee. The only problem was that the women were standing beneath the crescent and star symbols of the Turkish flag. The Armenians and Turks had a lengthy conflict that resulted in the killing of millions of Armenians between 1915 and 1918. Public outrage happened quickly – Armenian customers began posting complaints on Facebook and Twitter, and the posters soon caught the eye of the Armenian National Committee of America, which demanded that they be taken down. Starbucks leapt into action, issuing an apology and removing all the posters in Los Angeles. The Starbucks statement read, "We missed the mark here, and we apologize for upsetting our customers and the community." This response was fast, sincere, responsible, and gets right to the point.

Call the banners
When Robb Stark wanted to storm King’s Landing to avenge his father, he sent out a call to all the houses of the North. When your brand is under siege, it may be time to call on your connections for some backup: partners, customers, brand evangelists, and even employees. These folks can be your most powerful allies online, as long as you engage them honestly and arm them with the proper messaging in time. Additionally, be sure to call on all customer-facing employees to brief them on what happened, how the company is handling it, and what they should do if they receive calls from the media.

Ultimately, your brand lives and dies by your audience’s trust. Most people know that behind every brand are human beings, and they are not perfect. Mistakes happen. It’s how you handle these mistakes – with honesty, swiftness, and integrity – that will determine whether or not you get to keep that trust and goodwill built up in your brand.

Michelle Barry is director of technology PR for Red Lorry Yellow Lorry.

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