Crisis management – the role of the company website

A business should prepare for a crisis. What role does the website have in mitigating the reputational damage during such an event?

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Out of the blue, a crisis or issue can arise at any point for any business – from a single disgruntled customer letting off steam on social media to a full-blown product recall or a trust or reputational issue (remember the offensive Savill’s employee?), these things come in all shapes and sizes.

It’s a given that most businesses will have a full crisis comms plan which incorporates different off-page elements, but when an issue occurs, a company’s website should become the primary source of information for the public, the media and other stakeholders. The beauty of a website is that it is owned media – the business’s very own tool with which it can disseminate information into the world without any other parties necessarily being involved.

Social media is a crisis

Unfortunately, social media often takes centre stage for a number of reasons: it’s quick and easy for stakeholders to post their opinions and similarly efficient for the company in question to reply – sometimes unintentionally adding more fuel to the flames.

Whilst communication during a crisis does need to be direct, social media doesn’t often allow for a nuanced approach or an adequate word count to really do the job well. Of course, it can help amplify a message but it usually makes sense that the original version is in context on the business’s website with a reasonable explanation of the situation, not limited to 280 characters or similar.

Hosting the content on the company’s website is also a reminder about other areas of work, products, services, culture etc. that the business is well-regarded for – a more positive backdrop or frame of reference than might be possible on social media. So often, companies in these situations are vilified for one problem (sometimes seemingly minor in the case of the ‘M&S Colin the caterpillar cake’ gate) when actually customers are still happy to continue to deal with them on other fronts.

A Q&A document, hosted on the business’s website can be a simple but effective way to deal with the many questions that are posed during a crisis and can be used in its entirety via a link or in bite-sized chunks on social media if that is warranted.

How to deal with a crisis on social media is a blog post (or more!) in itself but it’s useful to remember that it usually pays to move the discussion or the issue/crisis off social media if possible. Some platforms will allow the account holder to hide customer comments without the individual being aware, which can give the business time to plan and respond before things get out of hand.

Continuing the theme of unwelcome comments, it’s obviously not good policy to silence customers but it can be helpful to pause the opportunity for people to comment on blog posts, customer reviews or other areas of the business’s website until the issue is resolved. And unless the team managing a site’s chat function have been briefed and are onside in the crisis, it can pay to turn off this function for a while too.

Video content

In ye olden days, a major crisis would have led to the company spokesperson doing the rounds of various broadcasters, all keen to get their piece of flesh. However, a business can now record their message and broadcast it to the world from the comfort of their own premises for a more timely reaction and a much less stressful situation for the spokesperson. And as the situation progresses, the business can continue to film as necessary – not solely making statements on air when the media come calling.

From a PR point of view, it may still pay to select appropriate media interviews to reach a wider audience and to help rebuild trust (hiding behind pre-planned content won’t do the job). However, a company no longer has to wait to be asked – they can broadcast their message directly and host it on their website.

Not only is video the most consumed content type (in 2020, 96% of consumers increased their online video consumption, and 9 out of 10 viewers said that they wanted to see more videos from brands and businesses) but in a crisis, there is nothing like seeing the whites of someone’s eyes and hearing the tone of someone’s voice.

The video content should be optimised and shared on the company’s blog, but it can also then be hosted on YouTube and posted on other social media platforms. As above, it’s much better that the content is embedded within the company’s website and shared from there, rather than directly from YouTube without any context.

A keyword optimised transcript or blog post of the interview is also helpful from an SEO perspective. It may sound counterintuitive to help search engines find your crisis content – but if people are already searching, it’s best that a business’s own carefully positioned, undiluted and uncompromised content can be found alongside any media coverage.

Signposting

Once content is live on the site, and depending on how major the issue is, it can be useful to signpost website visitors to that information – especially when an individual lands on the homepage via a direct search because they already knew the URL or had previously bookmarked it.

Building in some additional wording with relevant links to the content is the obvious solution here or adding in a pop-up that can offer various routes to different areas of the site.

Media vs. public visitors

When a major crisis arises, businesses are often dealing with an influx of calls from customers and clients as well as from journalists and the media. It’s hugely beneficial if a website has a dedicated media centre at all times but in a crisis, it is a real must-have.

Whilst any member of the public could access this area (so bear that in mind when creating content such as press releases), it will save the marketing and PR teams an infinite amount of time in responding to individual requests.

If a website has had a media centre for a while, it’s also worth taking stock about whether any of that content could do more harm than good in the midst of a crisis. Do you want your spokesperson images to be readily available to the press or would you prefer more control?

Contact details

Sometimes one-to-many communication is not adequate and customers and clients want the reassurance of personal interaction – often a person-to-person telephone call.

When time is of the essence, it’s often best to have a really tight team who understands the issues inside out. Therefore directing customers to a dedicated call centre or individual who knows the positioning and messaging that the business needs to convey is helpful.

Ensuring the best telephone numbers or contact emails are communicated on the site (or in the new pop up) can mean the rest of the business can carry on as normal with an assigned SWAT team on hand to deal with the rest.

Every crisis is different and there will be specific issues that arise in some situations that don’t in others, which makes writing a helpful post about crisis management quite tricky.

The digital and SEO teams may not seem the obvious choice of personnel to include in a crisis team but they can be instrumental in helping deal with a situation and ensure the website is working hard and in the best interests of the business.

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