With news traveling faster and reaching a wider audience than ever before, the potential for brands to be impacted by trending (and sometimes controversial) issues has grown exponentially. At the same time, companies of all sizes are facing mounting pressure from customers and employees to comment on challenging topics.
Brandon Chesnutt, partner, Identity PR and Harvey Rañola, global head of media intelligence, NetBase Quid, discussed how comms teams can assess discussions and sentiment around current events and make informed decisions on whether or not to join the conversation, during a recent presentation “Going Beyond Intuition: How a Proactive Approach Can Help You Avoid a Brand Crisis,” sponsored by PRWeek and NetBase Quid.
Rañola noted that “understanding what’s happening within your market and within an industry and having the data to support larger strategic initiatives to know exactly what to go after” is more important than ever.
Harvey Rañola and Brandon Chesnutt.
Chesnutt cited three critical factors that influence how comms teams are shaping their response to crisis situations. The first is employee pressure to react. Second is the foresight to establish a foundation for a standard operating procedure around crisis response. Third is the ability to act quickly to disseminate information and provide context to a situation.
“The need to be engaged is a necessity, especially after the past two years,” said Chesnutt. “A number of global trending issues have caused us to rethink communications and crisis management. We’ve seen change in the need for a level of astute strategic counsel that's never been higher.”
Chesnutt said comms pros “received two decades worth of crisis training in two years of the pandemic.” “It's put us in a situation to be better equipped to understand and navigate very challenging crisis moments that are springing up,” he added.
At the same time, the volume around the voice of the employee is increasing. “The evolution of how the practice has changed. These conversations are making their way from smaller pockets into wider pockets,” said Rañola.
The speed in which information moves makes constant monitoring critical. “Our tech stack has evolved considerably to keep up with technology and the hunger for data,” said Chesnutt. “Companies want a holistic view of an issue and they want it quickly. We’re so heavily reliant on tools to give us faster, better, stronger insights. That has been a game changer.”
Chesnutt said beyond media monitoring, his team looks at discussions that can involve multiple competitors or a particular industry. When working with a client in the automotive space, his team could pull public comments from government figures in other countries to assess the potential of future investment. “That’s the level of insight that we’re trying to capture,” he said. “Strong, proactive coverage, from a technology standpoint, that is feeding into the PR machine plays such a critical role.”
The speed of the news cycle is also driving the need to respond to challenging issues quickly. “You really only have one shot and you need to make sure that what you put out there initially doesn’t leave you backpedaling. You don’t want to create a crisis for yourself,” said Rañola. He noted the importance of understanding when to jump in and when to sit back and wait things out.
More recently, internal conversations are driving how fast brands need to react. “If there’s a lot of internal conversation that can impact timing, then we need to respond a lot faster and more openly,” said Chesnutt.
When coaching clients about when to engage, Chesnutt offered a few factors to consider. “If there’s an issue happening that is not directly a result of the company, does it impact them? Operationally, that’s usually a heavy weighted component of whether or not we make a statement,” he said. “Another piece is market or geographical proximity. If something happens on the other side of the country and we don’t have operations there, we’re a little bit less impacted by it. But maybe it’s in our industry and that’s a determining factor and we jump in quickly.”
Localized issues can quickly amplify to reach a national scale. The November 2021 high school shooting incident in Oxford, Michigan, is one example. “The media volume that comes with that level of crisis and tragedy creates this ripple effect of conversation and an unbelievable amount of attention in reporting and conversation,” said Chesnutt.
When the parents of the shooter were charged, Chesnutt said Identity PR used monitoring tools to measure reaction. “We could see an almost instantaneous shift in how people responded. There was a period where everyone had a statement moment, members of state government, several members of Congress and senators. About 10 days after that situation, we started to see corporate institutional conversation around the tragedy,” he said.
Chesnutt cited the cannabis industry’s debate between big cannabis and home growers as an example of how an industry issue can have ripple effects on adjacent brands. “Certain brands are forming an advocacy group to change regulations. You can hear echoes of a big organization squeezing out the mom-and-pops. People in those communities are passionate and they’re boycotting and calling out brands by name, so if you sponsored an event, you’re blacklisted,” he said.
The importance of having a standard operating procedure in place when dealing with any crisis can’t be overestimated. Chesnutt recommends a “flip the switch” method that deploys technology to get monitoring started, focuses on collecting data insights and ultimately provides impact assessment. “Those are three things that we’ve built into everything as a non-negotiable,” he said.
He recommends adding high-pressure scenarios to playbooks and giving more attention to how comms collects and analyzes material generated from employees. “No matter what we put in front of employees, stuff shows up on the internet, on TikTok or 4chan. The more we can add into our proactive planning, the better off we’ll be,” advised Chesnutt.