Strengthen, soften, separate

Apr 2, 2018Sheri Johnson

Crisis Communications

When managing a crisis, knowing your key audiences and the best way to communicate with them is paramount. In the midst of a crisis situation, using the strengthen/soften/separate approach can make the difference in your brand’s recovery.  

When navigating difficult situations and large groups of stakeholders, it’s important to understand your advocates so you can strengthen ties to them. This is where understanding how to reach those most important to your business becomes critical to overcoming any crisis situation. Do you need to reach out to them directly via phone or email? Can you gain additional advocacy and support using social media channels like Twitter or YouTube?

During Southwest’s technology outage, it did a great job of reaching travelers, one of the many groups of people important to their business, via social media to keep them apprised of how the airline was working to fix the outage. Because today’s consumers are skeptical and demanding, this strategy helped strengthen relationships with this key group. The company’s transparency and storytelling around the incident made it immediately apparent that employees were doing everything possible to get systems back online. This provides an excellent example of how reaching your stakeholders through the channels they use, and being honest and authentic, can strengthen business relationships.

In any given crisis situation, there are always people who are fairly ambivalent about the situation. In the case of Southwest, you could put non-customers or customers who weren’t flying during the timeframe of the outage in this category. These are the stakeholders you generally want to stay out of the fray. By keeping them proactively apprised of the situation without magnifying it, you can typically manage their expectations and address their concerns without creating additional outrage or anxiety. You soften their viewpoint of the situation and minimize the chance for negative engagement around the issue at hand.

And then there are those who naturally lean toward negativity and attempt to stir things up when crises occur. Social media makes it easier than ever for these folks to energize like-minded individuals and gain traction in stirring up heightened emotions. Separating your organization from these individuals should be a priority during any crisis. By activating the strength of your advocates, sharing your story transparently and laying out your action plan, you can often demonstrate that these represent a minority viewpoint, and separate them out as a small faction. This worked for us when we helped Aramark address a flurry of negative social media mentions about its food quality during the 2015 baseball season. By strengthening relationships with advocates and sharing everything the organization was doing behind the scenes, ballpark patrons soon realized the company was addressing issues, creating new menu items and enhancing its customer service, making the continued negativity appear inaccurate and misleading.

Every crisis situation is different, but by leveraging best practices like the concept of strengthening advocates, softening audiences in the middle and separating naysayers from the conversation, you can build a foundation for recovery and success.