falling rocks sign
Identifying and reacting to the initial risk is relatively easy. Taking into account all of the resulting risks this action creates is the hard part. PHOTO: Fleur Treurniet

Marketers talk frequently about how being agile and flexible helps them capitalize on shifting market dynamics, changing customer demands and competitive threats. But in reality, most are working to a well-defined marketing plan driven by a budget and technology strategy that was locked down months ago.

Small shifts are easy, but what happens when big things happen, like a major product failure, a supply chain disruption, a weather event that impacts the business, an employee or business scandal, a financial crisis or even a pandemic? Big things generally mandate a big course correction. All that talk about agility and flexibility? It needs to be turned into action. So where to start?

For issues that impact your company alone, communications strategy and cost management should be your two immediate areas of focus.

How to Respond to a Company-Specific Issue

Communications Strategy

Employee Communications

In times of transition, making sure your entire team is well informed and headed in the same direction is extremely important. Your team is your business family, take care of them first. 

  • Communicate clearly and often — There’s that old saying “Nature abhors a vacuum: whenever people do not know the truth, they fill the gaps with conjecture.” Conjecture is the last thing that you want. 
  • Be honest — If you don’t know something, it’s OK to say you don’t know how something will turn out. 
  • Be transparent — Surprises make employees nervous and distrustful. The more transparent you can be, the better. Having said that, it does not mean you have to disclose confidential information or undecided or in flux situation details. Sometimes communicating uncertainties just adds to anxiety. In my last startup I ran a weekly all hands meeting and no matter how much detail I communicated I had one employee tell me every week that I wasn’t transparent enough — she wanted to know everything about everything. Find your comfortable place in the transparency continuum and be consistent.
  • Take care of your employees — Sometimes events require that we provide additional support to our employees. Do all you can to provide the support and services your employees need to manage through whatever event is driving change. If you need to let employees go, focus on communicating with respect and offering as many post-separation services as you can reasonably afford.

Customer Communications

After your employees come your customers. In dealing with a crisis the same rules apply: Communicate clearly and often, be honest and transparent. If you have to rectify an issue that affects your customer base, include achievable milestones in your communications. Communicating clearly and showing the progress you are making often mitigates any negative impressions of the company created by the crisis. Sometimes you even end up with a stronger brand than before.

If it’s not a crisis that impacts your current customers directly, breathe a big sigh of relief — it’s one less thing to worry about.

Market Communications

If you are engulfed in a very public crisis, it’s important to have a communications strategy the entire organization understands and have your primary spokespersons identified. It’s also important to get out as far ahead of any public story to try and manage the narrative. In this era of the 24-hour news cycles and social media it is far more difficult to do than it once was. Years ago, we all had templates for crisis communications plans to ensure we were prepared to respond quickly. In my career I’ve benefited from having one and paid a price for not. We are all moving so much faster these days and are focused on what is right in front of us. If you haven’t taken the time to create a crisis communication plan, you are probably not alone. But trust me, it’s worth taking the time to do it now. Keep it simple, create a framework so you can just drop in the details:

  • Define how you are going to manage the communications process — daily calls, meetings, a war room?
  • Define your goals in dealing with your crisis.
  • Identify who is in charge of communications for each constituent audience, and who is leading the charge overall. Make sure you have complete contact details for everyone.
    • Employees.
    • Customers.
    • Market.
      • Investors.
      • Market general.
  • Identify the communications channels for each audience.
  • Create an FAQ outline. You won’t be able to complete your FAQ until you know what you are dealing with, but you can try and anticipate questions for a number of potential issues.
  • Create a Key Messages outline — you’ll have to flesh out the details when you are actually dealing with a crisis.
  • Define how you are going to measure progress.

Cost Management

In considering the business impact of any crisis, managing costs is often viewed as a way to manage business sustainability as the company works its way through the issue. For example, in the last several months we’ve seen some of our customers dealing with supply chain disruption due to uncertainty around the US trade relationship with China. 

As a marketer you need to focus on three things:

  1. Making sure that all your programs, people and technology are working well. If you don’t have a handle on that — now’s the time. Don’t wait for the crisis.
  2. Understanding your opportunities to scale back on programs, people and technology commitments (you don’t want to be the person caught out by a contract auto-renewal in a time of crisis). 
  3. Understanding the implications of eliminating programs, people and technology.

Addressing both of these things during the “good times” will make it easy to respond when a crisis hits and will ensure that you and organization make fully informed decisions.

Related Article: Agile Marketing Your Way Through the Next Recession

How to Respond to a Crisis Not of Your Own Making

What happens when something occurs beyond your company’s control that impacts how you sell your product, acquire new customers or communicate with existing customers? We’re seeing it happen now with the coronavirus. Even without the coronavirus, we'd still be heading into a new marketing environment at the end of the year when Google and others end their support of third-party cookie tracking and fundamentally change online advertising.

These seismic shifts affect channel and program choices — and this where agility and flexibility really come into play. The coronavirus is leading organizers to cancel events and companies to impose travel restrictions, both of which will impact the face-to-face customer connections considered critical to many a company's success.

The tendency in cases like this is to reallocate budgets and focus to other existing programs. But does this make sense? Will bombarding customers with more ads, webinars and emails really move the needle or will your customers start to ignore you or worse, become annoyed at coming under siege? 

Agility and flexibility are not enough. You must add creativity and innovation to the mix. This is the time to really earn your salary as a marketer. Go back to your business and marketing objectives, and assess how well you can achieve them without the channel or set of programs you’ve been forced to eliminate.  Now look into the void and start brainstorming with your team new ways to fill the gap. Now is the time to innovate. Innovating is hard, really hard. Nothing is worse than staring at a blank whiteboard. Some tips:

  • Bring together a diverse group of marketing, sales and service personnel. You’ll need to figure out the right size group for your organization. My general recommendation is to keep it under 10. If you go over 10, break the group up into teams.
  • Ask the group to list all the interesting commentary they’ve heard from customers, new marketing trends they’ve heard about, competitive activity —adopt a brainstorm methodology — just list the comments, do not discuss until everything is on the board. If you need more structure, ask the following questions:
    • What do our customers like?
    • What do our customers complain about?
    • What do our customers wish we had or would do?
    • What do our competitors do that we don’t (marketing not product features)?
    • If we eliminate X marketing channel what other ways could we achieve the same thing?
    • Are there any new technologies or channels that might be useful to us?

Now look for sparks — commentary that may trigger ideas. Create a list of possibilities to explore. You may need to conduct some customer interviews to fully flesh out the information you are working with. In doing those interviews, ask your customers how vendors get their attention, what their best vendors do to keep them engaged, what drives them crazy.

I don’t consider myself a particularly creative person, but I am good at digging out inspiration from a lot of data and commentary. Of course, you should be doing all of the above all the time, not just during a crisis, but most of us are moving so fast we forget to take time to do the strategic stuff. Hopefully after finishing these exercises you’ll come up with some ideas for new channels and programs that can be tested or perhaps a way to drive better performance from some of your existing channels. Finally, embrace the challenge with enthusiasm! Even though it can be painful, it really is the best part of our job.  Nothing feels better than achieving and exceeding objectives.

Related Article: Finding Marketing Inspiration From Unlikely Sources

No One Can Predict the Future, But We Can All Prepare for It

None of us knows what lies around the corner, but we can improve our chances of weathering a crisis — whether internally created or driven by external forces — by:

  • Having a clearly defined communications strategy and crisis plan.
  • Having control and oversight of your marketing environment (people, programs, technology) and being aware of where you can easily make changes.
  • Being prepared to innovate and having a practice of encouraging innovation at all times.

You never know when Chicken Little is going to wander by.