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It's amazing how quickly a brand can find itself in crisis, either because an issue arises with its portfolio of products/services or because another brand in the same industry is facing misfortune.

According to the White House Office of Consumer Affairs, a dissatisfied customer will tell an average of 9-15 people about his or her experience. Now more than ever, digital media is shrinking the gap between "crisis break" and customer perception of a brand. Consumers are communicating at a much faster pace, often using the mobile Web to share news in real time and participating in online discussions that enable them to share their thoughts and even communicate their opinions to brands directly. At the same time, digital media is also enabling companies to react with the same swiftness.

I've learned that communicating early and often is the best strategy for mitigating a brand crisis. Again according to the White House Office of Consumer Affairs, 96% of customers who have complained about your product/service will do business with you again (and even refer others to your brand) if they feel you acted quickly to resolve a problem. The key? Providing consistent and accurate details about how the situation is being handled and offering reassurance that your product/service will be available again soon.

A successful crisis management marketing effort depends largely on developing a planned, integrated solution and a sustained communications approach. Regardless of which channel they use, brands must communicate quickly and effectively with their key constituents during a crisis. That means understanding the best channels and targeting your message accordingly to help reduce the impact of the crisis on your brand and to minimize consumer backlash.

Here are six steps for companies to consider implementing both before a crisis and after it, during efforts to rebuild loyalty.

1. Plan ahead

Have a preliminary strategy ready before you need it. The more prepared you are, the easier it will be to execute your strategy calmly and confidently when the need arises. As you plan, think about all the tools in your toolbox.

Define and group your key stakeholders by the type of information you will need to communicate to them. Furthermore, select a partner capable of deploying your message via multiple media vehicles.

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Larry Berg is vice-president of Valassis, a media and marketing services company, and general manager of Newspaper and Rapid Response. He can be reached via bergl@valassis.com.