Crisis Communications 2018 Outlook (And The Top 4 Things Companies Can Do to Prepare)


Between United, Pepsi, the Hollywood film industry and others, it seemed like a different crisis was capturing the headlines every week in 2017.  Now that we are in 2018, what can we expect in the year ahead? If there’s one thing for certain, the need for crisis communications and reputation management will continue. As the founder/president of one of the top crisis communications firms in Chicago and Milwaukee, here’s my take on the top crises that will happen in 2018 – and what smart organizations can do to do shore up their crisis preparation strategy.

  • The Insensitive Social Media Gaffe – As part of their ongoing quest to be the fastest, edgiest and snarkiest, a prominent consumer facing brand will post something that draws outrage from one or more constituencies and criticism from marketing observers. Only a handful of brands (like Wendy’s and Steak-Umm, to name two) can get away with this kind of snark – and not always. If it’s really offensive, a brief boycott or campaign will ensue, reputations will suffer and shareholder value will be eroded.
  • The Political Miscue – Many brands either embrace (see Starbucks and Target) or stumble into (see Papa John’s) political or societal issues. In 2018, we will see a number of companies bungle this badly.  This country is so divided, it is a mistake for any company to embrace just about any political cause – no matter how benign it may seem.  As Michael Jordan famously said when asked why he didn’t speak out on political issues, “Republicans buy sneakers too.”
  • The Slow, Poorly Handled Apology – The corporate apology has become a bit of an art form, but not everyone is Picasso. A company will be slow (meaning: more than an hour or two) to apologize.  Then, they will say something like “if anyone was offended.”  Finally, under pressure, they will say what they should have said the first time: “We made a mistake.  We apologize.  And we will work hard to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.” United Airlines, does this sound familiar?
  • The Poorly Handled Executive Transition – One or more companies will botch their executive transitions. With the average tenure of a CEO down to 2.3 years, many companies fail to prepare for these events and then mishandle them when they do: “[Name] has decided to retire, effective immediately” (as if anyone makes that kind of life decision overnight).
  • The Missed Early Warning Signs – A prominent company will face a crisis that we will learn they should have known about long before it became public. Evidence will come to light that there were numerous early warning signs (employee hotline, customer complaints, product/service problems, social media chatter) that should have signaled trouble.  I’m looking at you, Wells Fargo.

So what can smart companies do to avoid being next year’s poster child for poor crisis management? Here are the top four things companies can do to protect themselves.

  1. Conduct A Risk Assessment – Take a comprehensive look at every aspect of your operations. What can go wrong that could impact corporate reputation, litigation risk or shareholder value? Where are you – or your competitors – vulnerable? Apply a concerted approach to address those issues and make sure you’re ready.
  2. Have A Crisis Plan – Too many companies either don’t have crisis plans or it’s a static “binder on a shelf” that is filled with simple, incomplete or dated checklists. Use the risk assessment to plan for various scenarios that could face your business. Be comprehensive as you plan ahead for these scenarios. What will the key messages be? Which stakeholders require communications, when and through which vehicle? What statements or Q&A can be prepared ahead of time?
  3. Conduct A Crisis Drill – Having an actionable, up-to-date crisis plan is great, but you need to test it periodically to make sure it’s effective. We’ve found this is also a key way to make sure members of the crisis response team understand their roles and to evaluate how well internal teams work together in a crisis.
  4. Have A Detailed Social Media Strategy – Even the most conservative organizations are realizing they need to be participants in social media. In a crisis, social media can be a strategic asset. But, it’s not always easy, and the pitfalls are numerous. Having a well-developed social media strategy will help lay a strong foundation. Consider which vehicles make the most sense for your stakeholders and how you intend to utilize these channels in the event of a crisis.

What do you think the top crises of 2018 will be?  And, more importantly, how ready will you and your organization be if one of those crises hits you?