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Keep Calm, and Keep Communication Going in a Crisis

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

Joh-Ju Koh, Communications Strategist of Vermilion Pinstripes explains what businesses can do to prepare in case of a crisis.

Can you imagine closing your restaurant business because of a social media storm that started over rice and a one-star review?

That was what happened recently in Taiwan. A group of university students went to a stir-fry restaurant for dinner. While waiting for their dishes to be served, they ate two pots of free rice and asked for more. When the rice was not given, they gave the restaurant one-star reviews and complained about the service. This incident triggered a massive backlash on social media. This ended with the closing of the restaurant.

You may pooh-pooh this and say people exaggerate, but in real life, crises can come in any shape and form, ad businesses need to be prepared. 'Just in case' is no longer something your grandma would say when she packs an extra cardigan for you.

We spoke to Joh-Ju Koh, Communications Strategist of Vermilion Pinstripes about Crisis Communications, otherwise known as your raft in a storm. It's about exploring what your business will need to navigate the storm, the tools or equipment you will need for emergency operations, and the protocols for a smooth two-way communication, and many more.

What is Crisis Communications?

Crisis communications is really the ongoing the conversations that businesses need to have with their stakeholders and members of the public during very very distressing times. These times could be for example, tragedies, emergency situations that have gone terribly wrong or even be difficult times like a pandemic.

I cannot emphasise enough, that being prepared for a crisis is important, especially in today's world.

Have you heard of the term "cancel culture"? People and businesses get "cancelled" for acts or words that are deemed offensive. For instance, a video situation goes viral and people who are offended go online to call for boycott of your business or products. As a result, your business is severely impacted.

Where do you find a Crisis Communications department?

In large companies, Crisis Communications would be handled by the Public Relations or Corporate Communications department. Generally, small and midsize businesses do not have a Corporate Communications or Public Relations department.

For businesses which do not have a Corporate Comms or PR department, they will need to retain a PR agency when a crisis hits.

Who are involved in a Crisis Communications situation?

Appointing a Crisis Communication leader and assembling a team to work through a situation would take a bit of time. In a crisis situation, the types of resources you need in a Crisis Communication team could include:

  • the business leader

  • a lead spokesperson

  • legal counsel

  • operations head

  • customer service leader

  • HR leader

  • information technology leader

  • PR and social media leaders

*Depending on the situation, it may also require external consultants such as industry specialists or crisis communication experts.

Your crisis communications team|Vermilion Pinstripes | Brilliant-Online

It really helps to think ahead and be prepared for any crisis. Businesses should assemble a Crisis Communications team and have a plan ready before a crisis breaks.

Global banks and airlines, for instance, not only have Crisis Communication plans but also conduct simulation exercises to put their staff through the paces in preparation for certain crises.

What prompted you to introduce Crisis Communications to businesses?

The Taiwan restaurant rice incident mentioned earlier really caught my attention. It was a popular local restaurant, but it was besieged by a spate of 1-star reviews in just one night. Anyone could start spamming a 1-star review over anything. Negative reviews can really hurt a business and even cause its demise. And that's a terrible ripple effect on the community and industry.

I want to help by getting business leaders to think ahead, think of the potential crises that can hit them, and make plans to manage these.

It's always important to keep the lines of conversations going as these can help influence perceptions and shape the outcomes for your business or product.

Is this for all kinds of businesses?

Crisis Communications can benefit any business. It's wise to get ahead on potential crisis and make a plan.

Recently there was a case in Singapore impacting a bubble tea shop. There was a QR code put up by scammers outside the shop. A lady had scanned that QR code thinking that it was a promotional offer by the bubble tea shop. Unfortunately it was not. It was actually malware that would be downloaded through the QR code and she lost thousands of dollars. So you see, no business is immune.

How can businesses be prepared for a crisis?

We need to be clear about something here - I'm advocating that all businesses be prepared for Crisis Communications, not just Crisis Management.

E.g. If an airline cancels a number of flights, their passengers are stranded at various airports and the airline will need to work through to rebook all the passengers on other flights, arrange for vouchers, locate their luggage and make sure that these are reunited with the passengers.

That's the management of the crisis.

But because all businesses are dealing with people, they need to keep the conversations flowing both ways.

How do you do that in a crisis when the situation is so fluid and there's so little time to react? This is why in dynamic times like these, having a set of processes and workflow to keep conversations flowing while monitoring for changes and feedback, can be incredible helpful.

A good Crisis Communication is anchored on 2 critical elements: Emotions and Logic.

People in a crisis will have a lot of emotions that they want to express. Many things said may be hurtful or derogatory, but we need to use logic to gather these as feedback and work through them during the crisis.

One of the first things that we do when a client suffers a crisis is to do a communication audit. We trawl through social media platforms and newspapers to learn what had been said, analyse the comments for tonality, and study the context in which they were made. These help to give an indication of the public's sentiments on the topic, about our client and the complainant.

If a business only has lawyers involved in stakeholder communications, the situation is likely to escalate.

A good communication strategy is to focus on de-escalation by being caring and empathetic towards the affected parties. At the same time, be clear and forthright with the facts of the situation with all the stakeholders.

In Crisis Management - Keep Calm, and find ways to cut through the clutter to get things done fast.
In Crisis Communications - Keep Calm, and be empathetic, kind, and speak simply.

Have the types of crises changed over the years?

I wouldn't say that the types of violence have changed. Because whether it's crises involving technology, violence, acts of deception etc. they are classed in two main categories: Accidental or Premeditated.

But the spread of emotions in the crisis has definitely grown.

Are there any crises businesses need to be more vigilant about?

Every business needs to examine its own business operations and identify the potential risks and crises that could bring them down.

Is there an increasing need for Crisis Communications because modern lives have made things more complicated or people more unmanageable?

A Crisis Communications plan takes time to build and test out through simulation exercises. So, it's best to do during "peace" time because you won't have the time nor energy to do that during the crisis!

I want to point out that it's not that people have become unmanageable. Rather, there are so many new platforms and tools available for everyone to create and share information. As a result, a seemingly innocuous matter could snowball out of hand, with an eruption of emotions to add fuel to the fire.

Anyone can pick just a part of a larger story and focus on it, distorting the event.

For instance, in the Taiwan restaurant incident, there were heated debates on social media over the definition of "free" rice. Is it an all-you-can-eat buffet sort of free, or is it free only "while stocks last"?

The rice debates stretched for days and led to divided opinions about the restaurant, the owner, and the diners who complained.

Sadly, the online vitriol got to the restaurant owner. He decided to suspend operations indefinitely.

Is this something you'd recommend businesses to implement now to become more sustainable?

Yes, I totally recommend it. In fact, I've written an article and created a free presentation containing 10 Steps as a guide for businesses who want to build their own crisis communication plan.

Check my article 10 Steps To An Effective Crisis Communication Plan. In this article, you will learn about the types of crises that can impact businesses, consequences of not having a Crisis Comm Plan, and tips on how to get started on creating your own Crisis Comm Plan. There's also a free Business Communications Guide titled 10 Steps To Building A Crisis Comm Plan for download here:

Vermilion Pinstripes is all about helping businesses thrive with confidence. Having the ability to plan ahead and engage with stakeholders in a crisis will add bounce to their strides.

When a business does not have a crisis communication plan, it will need to retain a PR agency immediately when the crisis hits. In such instances, businesses have very little to think, evaluate or consider alternative recommendations. This is not ideal as the current recommendations may only be good for the short term.

Ideally, a crisis communication plan should be developed by the business, not by an external party such as a PR agency. Which is why I'm advocating for businesses to start now before a crisis turns up.

Who should businesses contact if they need help with Crisis Communications?

I'm happy to do a free 30-min discussion with businesses who have unique issues or challenges in building their own crisis communication plan.

It could be a good idea to start now, for peace of mind. Remember, before all else fails, set up your Crisis Communications!

Contact Vermilion Pinstripes

Australia: +61-407-779-828‬

Singapore: +65-9681-7045


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