Peruse the headlines at almost any time and you’ll stumble across a corporate crisis. There are train derailments, information security breaches, short sellers circling weakened execs and their firms, and dangerously flawed products.
What do these types of examples all have in common? Each requires crisis communications management and a content strategy.
This is a lesson I learned firsthand in 2009, when I lived and worked in Alaska.
In late March in Cook Inlet, Alaska, temperatures rise into the 40s and days are already long, with sunsets around 8 p.m. at night. The ice starts to melt from its many lakes, and brave anglers are pursuing pike, and rainbow trout, and anticipating summer salmon runs.
Late March is also when Mt. Redoubt, a 10,197-foot volcano towering over a large oil tank farm, started to blow its top in 2009. The eruptions stopped air travel and cast a smoky film over Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, about 100 miles north of the volcano.
Mt. Redoubt taught me about the need for a content strategy, when a crisis erupts. Back then I served as the public information officer for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, known locally as ADEC. The agency responded to major oil spills, cruise ship sewage dumps, mine pollution accidents, to name a few. I provided facts to concerned residents, the media, other government agencies, and officials.
When I joined the ADEC, the agency distributed crisis information primarily using press releases, rudimentary fact sheets, by holding public meetings, and press conferences. I put the agency on Twitter and Facebook to broaden our distribution and speed up information delivery.
Mt. Redoubt’s eruptions inspired us to develop a new strategy. Media and the public wanted more than press releases and ADEC was actually doing a lot more than people realized. But we were failing to communicate the extent of our activities.
We realized we could show people what we were doing by providing information in different formats in a special digital portal on our website. Today it would be called a content hub.
Responding to the Mt. Redoubt eruption, ADEC worked with the U.S. Coast Guard, which had drone footage, amazing boat access to the volcano, and videographers with high-end equipment. Videos they produced—with interviews of Alaska responders–were the first pieces of content in ADEC’s Mt. Redoubt crisis content hub, after the press releases and fact sheets. Short bios of on-scene responders followed. Later, as we became more sophisticated, we added an automated newsfeed, distributing directly to Twitter.
Our content hub helped ADEC manage the narrative of the crisis, address public concerns, and communicate effectively. This is particularly important during a crisis when rumors and misinformation can quickly spread and damage reputations.
Changing the narrative
A content hub in a crisis can be used to demonstrate transparency and accountability. Companies can show that they are taking a situation seriously and are committed to addressing any issues. This can help build trust with stakeholders and mitigate any negative perceptions that may arise.
What’s more, a content hub can be a vehicle to change the narrative. In other words, brands can turn the risk of becoming only known for the crisis. And done well, a content hub can provide a bulwark against that risk. By publishing articles on topics unrelated to the crisis, an easily discoverable digital collection of thought leadership articles, videos, and other pieces can help to show the diversity of your brand.
Focus on issues and activities that demonstrate the value you bring to customers, communities, and society. Be sure to think about your audiences and tell these stories in ways that would resonate with them.
Back to Alaska
Although Mt. Redoubt continued to send ash plumes far into the sky into April, officials on scene decided to move the oil from the tank farms to a safer location, and none spilled into the state’s precious fishing grounds.
The lessons from the crisis helped me when I later served as a corporate communications and content leader. Here are key points, particularly relevant now.
Call your content team
Many companies now hold a crisis communications planning exercise yearly. A member of the content team authorized to act in a crisis should be at every crisis planning exercise.
Create a “crisis” content strategy
Your content strategy dictates the type of information your crisis content hub will contain. Things to think about include voice—should it take a different tone? Who are the executives who might be out front? And do you want profiles of their expertise? Consider how your content is pushed to your social channels. Addressing these questions ahead of any crisis can help a company to act quickly.
Figure out your content response team in a crisis
Map out who needs to be involved, if a crisis erupts. Depending on the size and structure of the company and the crisis, consider including a strategist, who can bring in others, such as a writer and a videographer.
Build your crisis content hub now
Figure out where it will live on the corporate website, what formats of information it will include, and who can publish that information 24/7. Keep it “dark,” or unpublished, for future use.