When a crisis hits, brands tend to panic. Too often, no one's sure who should answer media inquiries or respond to comments and questions about the situation on social media.

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And even if there is someone whose job it is to speak for the brand during a crisis, what should she say? Will her statement help to calm people down, or will it make a bad situation only worse?

SurveyMonkey Director of Research Solutions Chuck Brinker has worked with some of some of the biggest brands in America, including Coca Cola and SC Johnson, and he is an expert in helping companies navigate a crisis.

I invited Chuck to Marketing Smarts to talk about the role data can play in crisis communications. We discuss how data can help you prepare for (or even prevent) a PR nightmare, why testing your crisis messaging before issuing a statement is worth the time, and how you can poll people on their response without making the situation worse.

Chuck and I delve into how your company can use data to manage every stage of a crisis:

  • Before a crisis hits, monitor the conversation in areas you know you're vulnerable. That way, you have baseline information at your fingertips.
  • Once you're in the midst of a crisis, use real-time social listening to decide when and how to respond. Doing so helps to prevent the kind of knee-jerk reactions that can make a bad situation worse.
  • After the crisis has passed, you can use data to rebuild your brand image, counteracting the negative conversations, and to test messaging to perfect your response.

Here are just a few highlights from our conversation:

Brands generally know where they're vulnerable, so start proactively monitoring online conversations in those areas (04:00): "You have news cycles now that...you might be the top story for a day, if that. But because...the next big thing comes along sort of 'flooding the zone,' where you get pushed to the bottom of the search engine [results] and things like that so you're no longer the top story. But I think it really starts before you see anything in the news with companies.

"The way we typically think about it is...there's a proactive approach to what I would call 'issues management' and then there's a reactive approach to what we think of when we think about crisis mainly, which is 'crisis containment.' Something has happened and now we're trying to do the best we can from a marketing and communications standpoint to protect what we have in our business and our brand. And of those two things, the proactive is really what gets missed.

"[You need] a framework set up and a plan to proactively monitor issues, proactively understand what's happening in the marketplace and conversations and trends. Companies generally know the three to five issues that they're susceptible on as a business. And there's obviously crises that happen that are complete outliers that we don't see coming, but you can monitor for those things and, as you see groundswell start, whether it's [via] social listening or whatever it might be, you need to start thinking about 'what am I going to do if...' It's those if/then scenarios and doing some scenario planning. And that's the part that I think people miss. We see the reaction, we don't see the proactive stuff."

In the midst of a crisis, sometimes the best move is no move at all (12:30): "Sometimes, the best action is no action. We all are very...ego or company-centric inside our own four walls, and our businesses. And we can freak out about little things every day, but ultimately the best action might be to wait a day, wait a couple days, and really see where it goes. That is probably a critical point. And sometimes companies get knocked for not responding quick enough, because the expectation with our news cycles is that you're going to respond instantly, but I think that's not always the best case scenario to respond like that. Ultimately, the way that you respond can actually become a crisis in and of itself."

Resist the urge to defend your brand against every criticism (13:40): "Defensiveness and just going on defending the thing that's happened is the No. 1 mistake that happens in this crisis-reaction world. Basically, you come out and you defend anything that's happening.

"Now, I've seen it work a couple of times successfully. Taco Bell's a great example.... Maybe five or six years ago, they had a crisis where there were some claims made that the percent of actual beef in their beef was extremely, extremely low and it was terrible-grade [meat]. And that is a fact that they could easily defend and dispute. They basically flipped it on its head and said 'look, the "secret recipe" that we've been keeping to ourselves all these years, we're just going to show you what it is, and we're going to...show you that we're actually 80/20,' or whatever it might be. And that really worked, but 99 times out of 100, getting defensive doesn't work."

To learn more about SurveyMonkey and its business resources, visit SurveyMonkey.com/business. You can also follow Chuck on Twitter @ChuckBrinker (but don't expect tips for improving your soccer game.)

Chuck and I talked about much more, including how to map out a framework for crisis communications and how a "clutter reel" can help you to test your messaging without making the current situation worse.

Be sure to listen to the entire show, which you can do above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!

This episode brought to you by Citrix GoToWebinar:

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Music credit: Noam Weinstein.

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