Every experienced social media practitioner has "crisis planning" as one of the first steps in the on-boarding process with a new client. So when I was asked to moderate a panel called "On the Defensive: Tactics to Spot and Avert Corporate Crises", at the Incite Marketing Summit on September 19, I said, "Sure, no problem," thinking I knew something about the topic. A prep call with the panelists quickly revealed I was a novice compared to these genuine crisis professionals, who’d dealt with misfortunes such as murders and suicides, hurricanes and bombings, and just about every imaginable challenge a corporation might face.
After the discussion, panelist Doug Duvall, Vice-President, Corporate Communications at Sprint, provided his insights in the interview below, which confirms that crisis management is a distinct expertise and should never be left to amateurs. That said, Doug provides some great tips if you are looking to build up your expertise in this area.
Neisser: Can you give me a sense of your job responsibilities at Sprint?
Duvall: I’ve been at Sprint about a year now and I’m responsible for national and regional media relations; social media relations; financial communications; crisis planning; public affairs; customer experience communications and social responsibility positioning.
Neisser: What types of crises have you experienced at Sprint?
Duvall: Most of the routine crises involve our network. Our nationwide network is the backbone of our company and it’s the infrastructure that enables our 56 million customers to call, text, check email or watch a video on their mobile device. Today we’re so reliant on smartphones, and when there’s a network outage it’s understandable that customers become frustrated. So we’re really conscious about threats to our network – whether it’s from a construction crew accidentally cutting a fiber line or from weather events like storms, hurricanes, floods, or earthquakes.
We also have office buildings and thousands of retail stores across the country, so of course we worry about store robberies and potential harm to our employees.
Neisser: What is the worst crisis or near crisis you've experienced?
Duvall: Before joining Sprint I spent seven years at Freddie Mac, a mortgage finance company that was thrust into the national debate during the financial and housing crisis. I managed the public relations team and we had our fair share of crises – from the government suddenly taking over control the company, to foreclosures, to protests at company headquarters. But the one crisis that stands out to me, and probably to most employees at that time, was waking up to the news that our CFO had committed suicide. It was completely unexpected and yet another major emotional shock to employees, who had already been through a lot. And to make matters worse, our critics tried to make the incident more of a conspiracy about “what did he know, and what was he hiding?”
Neisser: What were the key steps you took to diffuse the situation?
Duvall: My boss and I quickly drafted a public statement and he walked it down the hall to get approved by the CEO. We felt it was important not to use “corporate speak” and to express our sincere sorrow in plain English. That’s critical in any crisis, but particularly one that involves a human tragedy. We talked about what kind of man and leader he was and how he will be most remembered “his personal warmth, his sense of humor and his quick wit." We posted the statement on our web site and quickly sent it to reporters who covered us regularly. But given this was in the midst of the financial crisis, we had calls from all over the world, and from nontraditional outlets like Entertainment Tonight. I even did a radio interview with BBC, talking about the kind of person he was and what a tragedy it was for the company and his family. We also developed an internal communications plan that included a memorial event, and to respect his family’s privacy, we developed protocol on who would have interaction with the family.
Neisser: What are the organizational requirements to avoid being taken by surprise by crises?
Duvall: It’s important to have designated crisis representatives from across the company. We have a person on Sprint’s Corporate Communications team whose primary job is to manage crises, whenever they may occur. She has a backup, and he has a backup too. But she is part of a larger company-wide team and regularly works with crisis representatives from our Network division, corporate security, sales, marketing, legal, government affairs, IT, etc.
You may hear about a crisis occurring in a number of different ways – through social media, breaking news, a phone call. But everyone needs to know who to escalate it to – that’s why we have designated people. So whoever might first hear of a crisis, they know who to send it to for managing the issue.
Neisser: Once you hear of a potential crisis, how do you begin to manage it?
Duvall: Well, it’s definitely a team effort, but I start by asking four simple questions at the onset of any crisis, no matter the issue or size of the organization:
- What happened?
- When did it happen?
- What did you do once you found out it happened?
- How can you assure the public that it won’t happen again?
If you have decent answers to these basic questions, you’ll survive the crisis. When you see a corporate or political crisis lasting longer than it should, usually there wasn’t a solid answer to the last two.
Neisser: Most companies experience complaints on a daily basis. How do you tell the difference between a routine complaint and looming crisis?
Duvall: Given social media, everyone has a megaphone these days. But you can’t treat every negative post on Facebook or Twitter the same. It does matter who it’s coming from and what they are complaining about. Is it a high school kid ranting on Twitter, or is it someone from the media with 20,000 followers? Is what they are complaining about true? Would your competition benefit if this got viral? Those things do matter and can help you prioritize.
To me, what separates a big crisis is scope, or how much it impacts your company. I’m talking about impacts such as:
- Business operations and customer base. Are we talking about a large region or large swath of customer base, perhaps from weather events like hurricanes and tornadoes?
- Lives. Are customers or employees injured? Is there loss of life? Is the public in danger?
- Cost. How much will a “fix” impact the company’s bottom line?
And while all these events can harm a company’s reputation, there can be also be issues that simply cut to the heart of what your company stands for – your brand, your CEO, or the corporate culture.
Neisser: Do you ever experience disagreements on how a crisis should be handled?
Duvall: Of course. By definition, crises are messy. Even when you have a detailed crisis plan that outlines ways in which the company should respond, every crisis is different. And every company has silos of employees with different business functions. For example, lawyers are not eager to admit wrongdoing; Finance employees don’t like allocating money towards a “fix” that’s not planned in the budget; and the IT division always seems to be juggling competing priorities. So it’s difficult to convince everyone to “drop everything” to focus on an issue that wasn’t there yesterday. At Sprint, it really helps that we have three corporate priorities: Improve customer experience, build the Sprint brand, and generate cash. So building the brand, and protecting our reputation, is front and center in everyone’s mind. It’s part of our culture and part of how all employees are compensated.
Neisser: After you have a sense of what happened and the scope of the problem, how do you communicate it internally and externally?
Duvall: Tone is important, and a crisis is not a time for spin. Mike McCurry, President Clinton’s former press secretary, advises corporate clients to think about the “C’s” when communicating during a crisis:
- Clarity. Use understandable, plain English.
- Credibility. Be authentic and willing to address shortcomings.
- Compassion. Remember there’s a person on the other side of this crisis.
- Commitment. Devote the time and resources to resolve issue.
And he’s right - how you communicate during a crisis is critical. These 4 “C’s” and the 4 “Q’s” I mentioned earlier are essentially my “cheat sheet” that I keep in the back of my mind during a crisis. They help keep you on course.
There’s a lot of chatter in Communications circles about needing targeted communications for your many stakeholders – employees, investors, customers, etc. To me, it’s most important to get it right. Determine what happened and what the company’s response is, and make sure the facts have been verified. Everything else flows from there. And while the phone may be ringing off the hook and Twitter is blowing up, you should communicate first to any victims and make sure employees are well informed early.
Neisser: While a bad customer interaction can happen anywhere, they tend to mushroom into crises on social channels. Do you monitor social channels 24/7 in real time and if so, how is this helping you deal with potential crises?
Duvall: Employees from three distinct departments are engaged on social media – Corp. Communications, Marketing and Care. Marketing also has an outside ad agency and Sprint has more than 75 Care representatives actively resolving customer complaints/issues through Facebook and Twitter. Sprint also has a progressive employee advocate program where more than 3,000 employees use their personal social networks to discuss devices, promote Sprint offerings, or refer their friends to Care.
Neisser: The lines between corporate communications and marketing are increasingly blurred. And certainly the customer doesn't care who responds as long as their needs are satisfied. Who 'owns' crisis communications?
Duvall: Most of our proactive Facebook posts, infographics, and paid media ads are developed and managed by our Digital Marketing group and their outside ad agency. And they have frequent contact with our Corporate Communications social media team to develop an editorial calendar of social media content. But when it comes to issues management or crisis communications, Corporate Communications clearly owns that public response.