how to deal with a communication crisis?

On 27 March, 2024
8 min
man is worried in the phone because he is a dircom in a communication crisis

As part of its partnership with the Social Media Club, Wiztrust brings together communication directors to discuss the challenges they are facing in their profession. A communication crisis is one of the aspects that communication professionals have to deal with.

During a crisis, it is important not to neglect internal communication. This must be based on transparency and employee involvement. The same applies to press relations. The one-to-one relationship of trust with journalists remains paramount in the management of a crisis.  That's why you mustn't give in to the dictatorship of present time (especially on social networks). This means keeping control of your communications.

Communication crisis, a part of communications director's job

The crisis is one of the challengues that communication directors have to deal with. With the arrival of the social media, detecting, anticipating and containing crisis episodes are now key elements in the communication of organizations and companies. To do this, it is necessary to know and be able to define high-risk situations. For Michael Chefles, Director of Communications at SNCF Intercités, the starting point of a crisis is the media: media attention alerts the company and marks the beginning of the event. "Without media coverage, there's no crisis," agrees Nathalie Desaix, communications director at 20Minutes.

At a time when organizations are increasingly exposed. Many have set up crisis units which are very similar to war rooms dedicated to managing these unpredictable events. This is the case at SNCF, a media company "over-solicited" by the media, explains Michael Chefles: "The smallest issue such as a delayed train or a problem in a station very quickly becomes a crisis issue", he points out.

The company has identified high risk sectors and areas, such as the Gare de Lyon and Gare Montparnasse stations, as well as vacation departure and return periods. At these times, "we're on the alert from 6 a.m. until the last train leaves", explains Michael Chefles.

The propagation of a crisis often starts with social media: "More and more customers tweet,for example , when a train is blocked. It goes up very quickly, because journalists are quick to spot this kind of message, and it can go all the way up to the government".

This was the case during the recent breakdown at Gare Montparnasse. It triggered "an overhaul of the crisis management system", continues the SNCF Intercités communications director. Each region and each major station has its own crisis unit, and its own social room, so that it can react as close as possible to the crisis situation.

At Aéroports de Paris, on-site operational control rooms pass on technical information to the corporate crisis unit.

Detecting and anticipating crises on social networks, responding to traditional media

To detect crises, communication directors rely on social monitoring tools. At Sanofi, social media monitoring was formalized two years ago with the acquisition of a monitoring tool (Radarly).

"We monitor all web platforms and social networks in real time," explains Christophe Torrent, external communications manager at Sanofi.

Two screens constantly scroll through publications and keywords associated with the company on the web. The Institut du Cerveau et de la Moelle épinière is equipped with the Meltwater tool. This aggregates data from websites and social networks, and algorithmically generates trends and audience behavior based on keywords. 20 Minutes uses editorial tools such as CrowdTangle and Lead Insight to recognize and anticipate crisis situations on each social network.

"They also enable us to take a step back in times of crisis. As communicators, we tend to follow people who react on networks. So these tools are useful for realizing the scale of an event outside our own circle," says Nathalie Desaix, communications director at 20Minutes.

Although social media may be the source of the crisis, "it's the media that set the tempo", emphasize Michael Chefles (SNCF).

All participants emphasized the importance of personal relations with journalists in crisis management.

"There's no substitute for a human relationship with journalists," points out Nathalie Desaix (20 Minutes).

At SNCF, the golden rule is to "always call back journalists", whatever the situation.

"When we see a crisis brewing, we call certain identified journalists to try to calm the situation," confirms Erwan Le Quilliec, head of the Aéroports de Paris crisis unit.

Don't give in to real-time pressure

If social networks are a privileged place for alerting and measuring crisis, they are also an essential channel for organizations to respond.

"We have to be very careful about the dictatorship of real time and urgency," warns Nathalie Desaix (20Minutes).

X is the network of influence by excellence, where crises most often emerge, but it's also a network of " insiders ". "The danger is to confuse reaction with rush", agrees Christophe Torrent (Sanofi).

"We monitor social media a lot to try and contain the crisis. The aim is to keep it out of the press," explains Alexia Lefeuvre, Global Communication Senior Manager at Novotel, who points out that "for some Internet users, launching crises is a hobby!"

Real-time communication can have a negative effect, feeding the crisis rather than extinguishing it. Nathalie Desaix recalls the case of a company whose live-tweet communication, during the broadcast of a Cash Investigation, was counter-productive.

"In a way, when it's a crisis, what it's urgent is to wait"

Alexia Lefeuvre (Novotel)

Reaction times on social networks vary, however, depending on the nature of the organization and the crisis. At Sanofi, for example, "we don't react on social networks. Medicines are not like other products. Pharmaceutical company communications are legally regulated", explains Christophe Torrent.

Crisis communication transformed by social networks

In the event of a crisis, communication takes place via traditional channels such as press relations. In contrast, for certain companies with greater media exposure, or in the event of a crisis involving safety issues, social networks can be the primary communication channel.

This is the case for Aéroport de Paris (ADP), "if a serious event occurs on one of our sites, we have the authorization, in agreement with the prefecture, to communicate to inform the public, particularly on the issue of airport access" explains Erwan Le Quilliec, head of crisis communications at ADP. "We have a time objective: to react within 30 minutes. In this kind of situation, "a tweet lowers the media pressure", he continues.

These communication elements are picked up, often as they are, by the media. They can use them to verify information. At SNCF, the communications department has set up a studio to produce content for social networks. The same goes for ADP. In the event of snowfall, a dedicated site aggregating practical information, videos or infographics is pushed onto social networks to quickly respond to queries from the media and the public.

"We must not forget that journalists, on the other hand, are also subject to real-time pressure," reminds Nathalie Desaix. In addition to producing content in-house, the communications director at 20Minutes suggests relying on influencers for crisis communication on social networks.

ADP, for example, can count on a community of around a hundred "avgeek" influencers, who are passionate about airplanes. "We don't push statements or language through them, but they are included in our press operations," explains Erwan Le Quilliec.

Relying on internal communications to manage crisis communications

Another important aspect of crisis management raised by a number of communications directors was the issue of internal communications. The days of separating corporate and external communications are over.

"We need cohesion and transparency. You can't mislead employees internally," says Valérie Lauthier, Communications Director at Pierre & Vacances-Center Parcs.

In some cases, employees themselves can provide support in crisis situations. "On controversial subjects, some of our employees have already spoken out on social networks to defend their profession and their company".

In the event of a crisis, "we need to inform employees in advance to turn them into ambassadors", says Axelle de Chaillé, deputy director of communications at ICM.

For this foundation, half of which comes from private donors, communication with sponsors is essential. "Before each donor recruitment campaign, we keep a close watch on social networks. What is said can have a very strong impact on our supporters, even the most loyal ones. So we do a lot of upstream communication work to inform them of the Institute's positions on sensitive issues".

Towards a centralized communications tool

For Léonor Siney of Adecco, "There's a real issue of educating employees about what they can and cannot talk about on social media. As they often feel the need to express themselves, we have set up an internal tool. It's a very powerful collaborative intranet."

Corporate culture and the nature of crises influence the way crisis communication is handled by the traditional media. ADP and Adecco rely on centralized communication tool.

       Meet Wiztrust PR a centralized communication tool


"We have a very established crisis process. We don't expose our local spokespeople to the media, it goes straight back to the group," explains Adecco's Léonor Siney.

At Geodis, on the other hand, the policy is to "express ourselves as little as possible. We make sure it stays on the ground, on a local scale", explains Anette Rey, Communications Director.

The same goes for SNCF. If the crisis is small-scale, "we try to keep media coverage local". However, certain types of crisis require special communication, such as social or legal crises. In the latter case, "we do media training work with the lawyers: they become our company's communicators", points out Valérie Lauthier, director of communications at Pierre&Vacances-Center Parcs.

At SNCF, the Brétigny-sur-Orge tragedy had a profound effect on the company. It has left a lasting imprint on the way communication is carried out.

Reputation is built during a crisis, thanks to effective crisis communication.

In the opinion of the participants, the stakes for the organization's reputation are set at the very moment when the crisis unfolds. It's during these intense moments that the company's brand image is built or destroyed.

"At such times, we may also have to deal with new contacts. It's an opportunity to introduce ourselves, to say what we do... The way we communicate builds our reputation", points out Sanofi's Christophe Torrent.

Nevertheless, crises can have a lasting effect on brand image, not least because of SEO. For example, the "Google Suggest" tool can have devastating effects. For example, when an executive is permanently associated with an "affair" - this is typically the case with Carlos Ghosn.

"Google can leave indelible marks. That's why it's essential to work on SEO after a crisis," says Alexia Lefeuvre (Novotel).

The weight of the search engine puts the impact of social networks on crisis management into perspective. The vast majority of what is found on Google following a crisis comes from the media and press articles. Social networks, and Twitter in particular, can be the source of crises. But above all, they are a resonance chamber.

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