5 Steps To Handling Your Next Brand Crisis

Between Chick-fil-A igniting a cultural battle about gay marriage, United breaking guitars, and BP spilling oil, brands get in deep trouble. Here’s how to (kind of) get out.

5 Steps To Handling Your Next Brand Crisis

The past couple of years have seen numerous brands get into trouble and then have to find their way back to winning the hearts and minds of their customers, stakeholders, and society at large. Chick-fil-A is only the most recent one in hot water. Before that we had the Komen Race for the Cure Cancer Foundation with its decision about working with Planned Parenthood, United with the song about how it handled a musician’s guitar, Penn State with the Sandusky scandal, BP and the oil spill, and Toyota with accusations of faulty accelerator pedals. The challenge they faced, to paraphrase Nixon’s Chief-of-Staff H.R. Haldeman’s saying about Watergate, was to “put the toothpaste back in the tube” once it had escaped. Although some brands have handled their crises better than others, there are five steps a brand steward can follow to keep things from getting out of control.


Monitor 24/7

In today’s social media world you need to be alert to what people are saying about your brand, not just during the week and during work hours, but 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For example, over a weekend in April 2009 Amazon de-listed several books they classified as “adult,” including LGBT titles. This created a firestorm that had #amazonfail trending on Twitter. Amazon did eventually respond but not until the topic had gone viral in a bad way.

Respond quickly and ethically

In a brand crisis there is a need to respond quickly to keep the situation from getting away from you. However, doing so ethically is challenging because it is often difficult to discern the truth without investigating the matter fully. Penalizing those who may or may not have broken the law or done something unethical before finding out the real facts is as unfair as doing nothing or hiding their actions. Similarly, taking blame for something that may or may not be your fault may be too rash as well (in the end it was determined that Toyota’s accelerator pedals were not faulty). So what is often the best course is to:

  • Acknowledge the crisis quickly and publicly
  • State that you are determined to find out the truth
  • Make it clear that only once you have determined the truth will you take action
  • Set up a fact-finding group to determine what happened. Preferably it should be one composed of respected people of which at least some, if not all, are from outside the organization. This will provide transparency and avoid both real and perceived conflicts-of-interest.
  • Set a timetable for the findings to be completed and actions to be taken. In the interim, stay disciplined about keeping mum to let the investigatory group do its work. This is what Penn State eventually did by having former FBI Director Louis Freeh perform the Sandusky investigation and issue its report.

3Don’t allow short-term thinking to destroy the long-term value of the brand and the business

In the midst of the emotion and confusion of a crisis it is often easy to take steps one will regret later. Therefore, it’s essential, before any major decisions are made or statements released, to think about the long-term impact on your brand and your organization. Think not only about the organization but, more importantly, about your customers, your stakeholders (employees, investors, suppliers) and society in general. How does what has happened and what the organization plans to do or say affect them? How will they react? If you think beyond just your own firm it will lead to a better outcome than thinking solely about the company.


Have a written crisis plan and run drills

Once you are in the midst of a brand crisis things will be happening very quickly. If you have a written plan on how to deal with one and have run through drills to practice responding to one you’ll have a great advantage. The team members will know their roles, what needs to be done in what order and how to act. A good crisis plan will do the following:

  • Specify team members and identify key decision makers: Knowing who needs to be in on decisions and who will ultimately make them is step one. With executives often travelling it’s also important the plan contain everyone’s contact information. In addition, the plan should specify who would represent any absent team members and bring them into the drills as well.
  • Identify key media to contact: Getting your version of the story out to the media is key in influencing the evolving storyline. Different types of crises may require additional media types to contact but there is likely a set of national, local and industry media that should be on the list to link up with.
  • Guidance for Action Steps: There are some things you will need to do immediately and do long term. Rather than make the plan up as you go, having a checklist of possible actions steps (e.g. gather team, define the issue, collect information, contact other key organization stakeholders, contact the media, respond –or not–on social media, etc.) will make things go much more smoothly and ensure nothing is overlooked.
  • Code of Conduct: As important, if not more so, is to have a code of conduct for how the crisis will be handled. For example, it could include items such as a) we will find out the truth, b) we will tell the truth, c) once we know the truth we will act accordingly and d) we will keep the customers, employees, stakeholders, and society in mind as we make decisions.

Avoid a crisis in the first place

Hundreds of years ago he famous military strategist Sun Tzu stated, “He who excels at resolving difficulties does so before they arise.” His point was that it is much better to avoid creating a problem than it is to have one arise and then have to deal with it. So it is with brand crises.

How to do so? Provide guidelines on proper business behavior to employees to help them ensure they act ethically. Let them know what the proper reporting procedure is if they come across someone in the organization who is acting unethically and make it clear they are responsible to report such actions. Publish PR and social media rules for anyone who represents the company in the digital and/or real worlds. For the latter especially make sure they separate the tools they use privately from those they use for the organization. Chrysler, the Red Cross, and others have all run into problems on Twitter when the public got mixed up with the private.


So those are the five steps. Implementing them can’t guarantee the avoidance of a crisis but they can help minimize the possibility of one and improve your chances of “putting the toothpaste back in the tube” should it get out!

[Image: Flickr user Nick Wheeler]


About the author

Mark is the author of three books (including the popular Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: Six Principles for Managers) and a Lecturer at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Prior to that Mark was a marketing executive with experience at IBM and Lenovo