November 15, 2016

Crisis Mitigation: Planning is Key

Five Things a Crisis Plan Must Include

Eventually we all face them. An issue has evolved into a full-blown crisis for a company, and they’re looking for the best way to reach their target audiences to quickly deliver accurate information. They need help. But while pet health companies can take immediate steps to successfully mitigate a crisis, the reality is that the most critical step must happen before the issue ever rears its ugly head in the first place – and it’s all in the planning.

It’s a matter of time

Industry experts note that it’s not if a company will encounter a crisis, it’s when. Recent studies show that although the majority of chief executive officers see value in having a crisis communications plan, just under 50 percent of companies actually have one, and only half of those plans are formally written out.

So why the disparity between their opinions and actions? When it comes down to it, some executives feel that spending resources on a scenario that may or may not happen is not wise. However, as those companies that have faced a crisis know, not having a good communications plan can be devastatingly costly – especially for companies in the pet care category.

The high cost of a crisis

Remember the melamine dog food contamination crisis in 2007? Menu Foods, a company that provided wheat gluten used by multiple pet food manufacturers in their dog and cat food formulas, was found to have product contaminated with melamine. It’s estimated that up to 8,000 pets died as a result of the contamination, with Menu Foods recalling 60 million containers of pet food (spanning 150 brands) and suffering $42 million in losses. And that’s just the recall.

One of the manufacturers impacted by the recall ramped up its advertising spend, placing full-page ads in 59 daily newspapers. It also implemented a veterinarian support line and hired additional customer service support personnel to answer consumer questions. Even after this response, the company still faced an uphill climb to recovering consumer trust as many critics noted it never apologized about the tainted food, which riled up pet owners.

But pet food manufacturers aren’t alone when it comes to crises. A new crisis can emerge quickly, and as consumers spend a record $60 billion on their pets this year, it’s important that every pet company has a plan they can implement to quickly disseminate timely and accurate information.

Developing a crisis communications plan

So what should a brand’s crisis communications plan look like? WS recommends making sure your plan includes five key components:

  1. Collaboration
  2. Crisis identification and ranking
  3. Guidelines/framework
  4. Practical tests

Regular reviews/updates

A crisis communications plan should be fully integrated into a company’s overall communications planning efforts – not developed separately or as an afterthought. WS works with our clients to make sure all of their communications work together, highlighting and supporting the values and character of the company. So if we’re helping a company respond to a product recall or plant closing, we make sure our approach and messaging are in sync with the proactive news a company pushes out. All of these communications impact a company’s reputation, and today, a company’s reputation is its greatest asset.

Additionally, no one group or individual within a communications team should be solely responsible for developing the plan. All areas of a company should be involved – from operations to human resources – to make sure all areas of the company are represented.

Listing out every potential issue or crisis that can happen can be a scary thought, but it’s a step that is critical. For example, can a pet toy be a choking hazard, or could there be quality issues from a food ingredient supplier? A good plan identifies every potential issue/crisis that could occur and then further identifies the risks associated with each. Understanding the gravity of each situation is half the battle.

Your crisis plan shouldn’t be seen as a prescription or recipe. It’s a framework, outlining key considerations, approved spokespeople, general messaging, and processes to be followed. This document should underscore the importance of taking responsibility/action, communicating timely information in a genuine and transparent way, and including two-way communications vehicles (i.e., social media) as part of your communications approach.

Don’t bypass the social media part of the statement above. We’ve seen what appeared to be smaller issues escalate into bigger crises because they were ignored or dismissed on social media (i.e., a company doesn’t respond to repeated questions/concerns, so more voices join in to vent their frustrations). And we’ve seen what the power of a quick two-way conversation on Facebook can have in diffusing a potential powder keg (i.e., people respect companies for listening to them, caring about what happens and trying to resolve a situation, often earning their long-term trust and brand loyalty).

Just because you have a plan doesn’t mean it will be perfect. You must test it, preferably before you have to use it in a real crisis. Make sure you build in time to have a mock crisis to determine if you have the right decision-makers involved, that your spokesperson is prepared, and that everyone understands the process.

A crisis communications plan is a living document, so once it’s developed it shouldn’t be banished to a shelf until it’s called into action. We recommend our clients review their plans quarterly to make sure they’re current. Employees leave, messaging changes and processes are updated. Your crisis communications plan must do the same.

Consider a crisis communications plan as insurance. We all know bad things happen. Storms can ruin homes, errant drivers smash into cars, and people get sick and break bones. Dealing with any one of these issues isn’t fun, but we subscribe to home, auto and health insurance to minimize the financial impact these situations can bring if they do happen.

Companies must approach a potential crisis in the same way. We know bad things will happen. So let’s work together to identify potential problems, look at the company holistically to recommend the best approach to ensure continued brand health, and develop a plan to minimize the damage before it’s too late. When our clients bring WS in to help plan for these scenarios before they occur, we’re able to help them save valuable time in delivering the right information to the right people. During a crisis that surrounds food safety or has other human or animal health implications, a company can’t afford to not have a plan.