Tips for Crisis Communication in the Digital Age

Christoph Trappe

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Crisis communication in the digital age is complex. In this podcast, Christoph Trappe, Sandra Fancher, and Andrew Rohlf from Stamats discuss tips for higher ed organizations to ensure sensitivity to crisis events and turn potentially negative industry news into positive, trustworthy digital and real-world experiences.


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Christoph Trappe: Hello, everyone. It’s Christoph Trappe, chief content officer with Stamats. And today I’m joined by Sandra Fancher, chief innovation officer, and Andrew Rohlf, our digital analyst here.

Sandra Fancher: Hello, everyone.

Andrew Rohlf: Hi. Thanks for having us.

Christoph: It’s going to be a very relevant show today. We’re talking about crisis communication in the digital age. How do we react when something happens in our industry?

So, for example, a couple of examples come to mind. One I’ll let Sandra talk about and the other one that I saw recently was actually in the airline industry.

So, we have the 737 Max, two crashes, many people died. And people were talking about it. The news was breaking as it does nowadays on Twitter. And Boeing was actually still sending out an ad on Twitter saying how “state-of-the-art the 737 Max is.” Certainly, they didn’t know that had happened when that was coming out or it was just the timing. But that’s a very common problem today. What’s the other example, Sandra?

Sandra: Right. So, in higher ed, the bribery scandal obviously hit all the news. And schools were advertising within those articles because they had them tagged for higher ed. And the ads were things like, “Whatever it takes” or “Make it happen.”

So, you would see the bribery scandal and then their ad right underneath it. And that’s probably something that you don’t want your name and your school attached to.

Christoph: So, the real problem today, Andrew, why are these things happening?

Andrew: Well, we can talk a little bit about the differences between traditional media 10-20 years ago, and today, where we’re using completely a digital approach in most cases.

So, previously, you would use your print media, you would know exactly what magazine, what publication, what newspaper you were running in. And you would know exactly when the scandals and those things were coming out, maybe we would take a break from advertising for a month or two.

Today, with the digital landscape and programmatic advertising, we most of the time don’t know where our ads are being placed. Within the Google display network, there are hundreds of thousands of different websites. They could be gaming websites, they could be news outlets, we really just don’t know. So, what we really want to avoid is having our ads showing right next to those crises.

Christoph: And what’s interesting is it’s so automated. So, for example, the Boeing ad, I actually never saw it. But an air traffic reporter saw it, right? So, this person, she’s constantly talking about air travel. So, guess what? Of course, she’s being targeted by that ad. And then she also sees the breaking news, which Boeing probably didn’t even see at that time, or their marketing team probably didn’t see it.

Sandra: And then they screen-capture that…

Christoph: They did.

Sandra: …then they shared on their social media. So, even if you take the ad down, it is being shared all throughout. Or if you didn’t even see the ad, you see it because it’s being shared. So, applications are huge.

Andrew: Right. It only takes five seconds or one ad placement for that to really go viral on Twitter or Facebook.

Christoph: Maybe a good strategy is maybe to then explain why that ad was running and how you took it down. So, that’s one strategy once you see it. Acknowledge it, say what you’ve done and how you move forward.

Now, the native web ads, they’re an interesting topic to me, too. So, for example, we run remarketing campaigns, right? So, let’s say your institution, your organization is doing a webinar. People come to your webinar page and they leave, and then you remarket to them to get them to come back, right? Or whatever your call to action might be. And, that ad will be served no matter where that person goes.

So, as Andrew said, if they go on a gaming site, it’ll be served on a gaming site. That has nothing to do with the organization that you care about gaming or not. If they go to CNN or Fox News or whatever, and they read the article about the bribery scandal, your ad will be on that bribery scandal page.

Sandra: Right. But I do think it’s the message that you’re having on the ad. So, if it’s like, “Whatever it takes” or “Make it happen,” it just doesn’t quite match with that scandal. But if it talks about trust and value, then maybe it’s still okay to be on that scandal page. Especially if you weren’t involved.

Now, if you were involved, that’s a whole other situation if you were one of the schools.

Christoph: So, here, we talk about really three examples, three scenarios. The first one is your brand is directly involved. So, for example, you’re in the news, something is happening, you’re a global brand or national—you’re trying to recruit students in higher ed, for example, throughout the US. What’s one strategy to do when that happens?

Andrew: I think in that case, it’s really important just to be super proactive. So, the moment that something comes out, just pause everything and later on, you can go evaluate which ads or if any are able to run, which may be a possible issue for people, something that may not portray your company or institution in a good light. Then you can go back to your traditional advertising, if they do pass those tests.

Sandra: And if you are going to pause, sometimes we’ll see organizations or schools where they’ve got media, maybe through this media buyer and then this media buyer, and then this media buyer, and then this media buyer, and they have it very decentralized how they’re doing their purchasing. Well, that’s going to cause you a lot more problems, because you have a lot of things to pause, where it gets kind of bundled into their buy deal.

Christoph: That’s another reason why you really want one strategist that kind of can run the whole thing, and maybe you have that internally if that’s the model. It is easier just to pause everything the second you know that your brand is in the news. And, I just thought about your comment, you said in traditional media you had print, right? So, if I were to pause a print ad, now where do I make it up? There’s no more—they’re not adding print editions. But in digital, you just widen your reach, or you widen your geography. I mean there’s always more impressions you can find somewhere to get in front of people.

Sandra: Right.

Andrew: Exactly.

Sandra: And then if it’s not your brand, but it’s in your industry, it does give you an opportunity to kind of capture that hot topic and talk about your approach, or your philosophy or maybe how you can help, and use that coverage to actually boost your own brand.

So, you have to be very careful how you do that, but you can also kind of leverage that activity that’s happening on the web.

Christoph: So, that example is the bribery scandal, and then you have an institution that isn’t involved, but that’s running ads.

Sandra: Or they’re running other thought leadership pieces. On a podcast, they’re sharing their point of view and its impacts. And what is this going to do to the future of higher ed? And so, again, they’re using that kind of active search to support their brand.

Christoph: So, Andrew, how do we keep track? I mean this has never been more complicated honestly, right? And I’m a news junkie. But how do you keep track even?

Andrew: It can be difficult to track everything, especially when there is a decentralized ad approach that you have. One easy way is just to keep a spreadsheet of, “This month, we’re running in Google and this month, we’re running in Bing, and we’re running on this website and this other placement.”

So, just keeping a spreadsheet and knowing exactly which campaigns you’re running and when is a good thing to keep track of. And, maybe add some notes on what the creative is, what sort of verbiage you’re using in those ads, just to make sure there isn’t something that could be perceived the wrong way.

Sandra: And what if you hire an agency that does your ads? Then should you set up something in place ahead of time where you have an emergency button to push with them?

Christoph: So, what’s funny about that is, yes, we need an emergency button. And taking this example for social media, everybody is scheduling social media forever and ever, right? And none of the tools, as far as I know—maybe we’ve seen somebody innovate—none of them have a “stop all” button. You have to go in and pause them or move them.

So, we do need that. So, whoever is listening out there in the SaaS world, please add it.

Andrew: Yeah. We need the red phone to reach the President in those situations.

Sandra: But you’re right. It’s not just the ads. You just mentioned the social posts as well. And so, if you don’t have that master list, and you’re in crisis, your mind is just like, “What do I gotta do? What do I gotta do?” You would forget maybe your organic posts or a blog post that’s coming out. I mean there’s a variety of topics that could get you in trouble.

Christoph: You know, it is really a tricky situation. So, the third example is where it’s not your industry, but you’re using terminology that might be mistaken.

Andrew: Yeah. So, the example that we kind of thought of earlier during the California wildfires, we may not want to be running ads that say, “Flaming hot deals”, or I know a lot of people use the flame emoji and that sort of thing nowadays. And, just being aware of the verbiage and the terminology that you’re using – that somebody wouldn’t take that the wrong way and think that you’re making light of the situation.

Sandra: Especially if it shows it in a news article about the California fires, which could happen.

Christoph: Which could happen, but you wouldn’t know, right, because it’s automatic.

Sandra: Till you see it on Twitter from someone else.

Christoph: Took a screenshot. So, that’s what makes it difficult. I remember an example, somebody was posting on Friday the 13th: “It’s Friday the 13th. Anything bad happen today?” So, they posted that and that was the Friday the 13th where the attacks in Paris happened, which I think was a couple years ago now. So, it’s so hard to control, right?

So, if you’re saying things like that, be aware of what else is going on. And maybe more importantly, pause things as things happen. And then if you don’t catch it, which is very easy to happen, actually follow up and explain what happened. Right?

So, Boeing, I don’t know if they did this or not, but they could have very easily followed up and said, “Our condolences to the victims and their families. We did run a few ads, we’ve taken them down as soon as we heard about this,” or something like that.

Sandra: Right. “They were already in the queue, we did it as fast as we could. And we’re sorry for the insensitivity.”

Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. There’s such an easy way nowadays to go in through social media to apologize. And people are quick to forgive, too, if they realize that it is just a mistake, and they’re really unavoidable and you did the best that you could in getting them stopped when you realized what was happening.

Christoph: So, some people are quick to forgive, depending what network you’re on. On Twitter, they might just take you to task for the next 24 hours. And again, typically I would recommend responding a couple times. Not every person individually. If you’re a national or global brand, that would be a lot of responses. You literally can’t respond to everyone.

However, if you choose to respond to everyone, you might actually get coverage out of that because every once and a while, I see brands do that. But it can become a task that’s not actually achievable.

Great. What else did we miss?

Sandra: I mean, I think you’re never going to be able to catch everything. But I think having your list is really important to be organized ahead of time, having that crisis plan, talking about, “What would we do in this emergency?” And then if it’s not yours, really leveraging in a positive way the activity that’s happening to support that. And you want to build trust. At the very least, you don’t want to break trust – if it’s not a situation where you can build it, please don’t reduce it.

Andrew: Yeah. And then I think finally what we can do as brands and organizations, we can really use programmatic ads or advertising in general to go out there and apologize, get the word out that you did make a mistake, or “This is what we’re doing to fix this situation.” So, really use what may have been a negative in the first place, we can really use that as a positive.

Christoph: Great. Thanks everyone for listening. If you’re listening to us on iTunes or any of the other podcast channels, check out our blog Stamats.com for many more insights on digital marketing and other marketing topics.

Thanks everyone for listening. And Sandra, Andrew, thanks for joining me today.

Sandra: Thank you.

Andrew: Thanks.

[End podcast]

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