Planning to Fail

Companies usually have a disaster plan—but does your plan include marketing? The potential crises that may arise and affect your marketing include everything from a national or regional crisis to a weather- or facilities-related disaster—or even a company embarrassment. You may do your best to avoid conflict, but the most seasoned leaders know that sometimes it is inevitable. Your best chance for survival is to have a marketing mitigation plan that is just as thoughtfully prepared as any other emergency plan.

Communicating effectively with the public is a challenge that many haulers and industry professionals face. We speak a different language and it is difficult to translate the intricacies of waste and recycling back into a message that your customers will understand—especially during a company crisis. Customers bring up questions that seem like common sense. They will mention an off-topic issue. What they do not know makes them fearful and critical: the loud engine and transmission sounds of a truck sound like it is speeding through the neighborhood—even when truck telematics prove it is not. A fire due to improperly disposed of household hazardous waste suddenly brings up questions about CNG fuel safety and your choice to launch a brand new, fuel efficient fleet. Your job is to mitigate the crisis while providing customer service that honors your brand promise.

Briefing Your Marketer
You may have personally witnessed the result of a marketer left in the dark and the disastrous effect it can have on a brand’s image. If not, it goes something like this: in order to keep a lid on things, management decided not to make any internal announcements or acknowledgement of the issue. Meanwhile, no one has told the marketer (or agency). A pre-planned post goes up on social media according to the editorial calendar and your marketer is blindsided by the negative reaction from the public. What was totally appropriate the day before comes across as flippant or callous and suddenly you have a public relations issue that you did not see coming.

It is critical that you keep your marketer well-informed of these issues so that s/he can have a plan in place if the incident grows and begins to threaten your brand. Your instinct may be to keep things quiet and just between upper management and the executive team, but you should have a special relationship with your marketing manager that allows you to discreetly reveal these vulnerabilities with absolute confidence that your words will not be released to the public or the rest of your company without permission. Marketers need to know so that they can prepare to protect you and the brand.

Establishing Emergency Protocol
Work with your marketer and management team to outline potential issues you face in your line of business. This is the time to table your arrogance: your safety protocols may be the absolute best in the industry, but some things are outside of your control and you will have a better chance of survival if you have a plan. Refer to recent industry news if you are having trouble coming up with marketing risks. There is almost always an article on avoiding facilities issues, equipment failure or a safety incident. Add those things to your list. Add IT issues like a security breach or crashed website to the list. Add social media gaffes—a misplaced meme can upset less web-savvy fans. Be sure to include customer service complaints. While you are coping with a true emergency, your loudest customer may decide that now is the time to publicly air his grievances and suddenly you have a secondary crisis. Plan for the worst, expect that “the worst” will somehow find a way to get exponentially worse, and steer your brand through it.

Once you have your list of disasters, your next task is to develop a protocol that controls the message on all outlets—your company spokesperson, the website, all social media and any other public-facing marketing:

  • How will you handle each disaster?
  • Who is authorized to speak to reporters or law authorities on behalf of the company?
  • Who provides the spokesperson with messaging to use?
  • How will the disaster recovery team communicate—especially during non-business hours or in the event company phones or web services are down?
  • How will you coach the customer service team to handle inquiries about the issue?
  • What Google alerts will you set up to monitor the crisis?

Mitigating a Crisis
There is no universal solution to navigate a crisis. Your company’s plan is going to be unique, but there are good guidelines to follow for any problem:

  1. Communicate internally. You may be busy handling a crisis that captures a lot of public attention and then your website crashes—making things worse. Now people think you strategically took the site offline to hide from the scandal. If you had told the IT team that there was some negative press building up on the issue, they may have been able to prepare for the excess traffic headed your way and kept your site running.
  2. Stay open for business. Customers are going to have questions and you need to keep your points of contact open. Shutting down your website and social media accounts makes it look like you are hiding and that you are not going to care for your current customers during this challenging time. Educate and train your receptionists and customer service representatives. Give them talking points so that they know how to respond to customer questions and continue with daily transactions. Make sure they know where to forward media inquiries. Ask your employees in these roles to compile the feedback they receive and use it to keep a finger on the pulse of the crisis.
  3. Prepare for ongoing challenges. Some crises will blow over in no time. Others will last. You may struggle with this for a long time and it is important that you stay calm and cool for the duration. Every flare up is an opportunity to handle the situation with grace and demonstrate your brand values. Do not let your messaging get stale. Be innovative and creative.
  4. Speak with sincerity. Customers may not know the waste industry, but they know feigned sincerity when they hear it. As you develop the messaging during your crisis, refer to your branding guidelines on your brand’s voice. Consult with your legal team and err on the side of caution but aim to be as natural and sincere as you would on a normal day.

Employees from each department within your company should be provided with tools to handle the ripple effects of a crisis that arise in their jurisdiction. Your customer service team may have been briefed on how to handle the situation, but did you remember to inform the drivers? You do not want to let your customers’ experience be less-than-perfect when you are going through a difficult time. Disney World delivers a legendary customer experience because their employees are trained on company priorities (safety, courtesy, show and efficiency) and empowered to make their own decisions during a moment of crisis or conflict in order to ensure each guest has a magical experience according to the hierarchy of these priorities. They deal with negative issues every day—from vomit on a roller coaster to deaths in their parks—yet every instance is handled in a way that protects the brand and employees can quickly act to resolve problems without intense involvement from management. To learn more about the Disney process, I recommend reading Be Our Guest by Disney Institute with Theodore Kinni.

You will need to develop your own steps for your staff, but you might want to start with the following for your marketing team and adapt it to fit other departments. In case of an emergency:

  • Pause all upcoming posts, events and promotions. Automated social media posting services are a wonderful tool, but autopilot can be a curse when your tongue-in-cheek pre-planned post launches right after the news breaks about a somber event or a company crisis.
  • Take a breath. Do not act until you have taken a moment to consider your options. There is a callous rush to be among the first to respond to an event with #thoughtsandprayers. Unless you are a news agency rushing to inform the public, this is an unnecessary risk. Take a break. Feel your emotions, but keep them separate from the brand.
  • Review your brand guidelines and company policies. Is there a policy in place about responding to an event like this? How would your brand voice speak about it? Talk to management and the legal team. Listen to how your co-workers are handling it. Explore what your brand demographic is saying.
  • Choose a course of action. You can always opt not to post. Evaluate the potential response from your fan base for all of your options. Ensure you have your team’s approval on whatever course you choose and always act with sincerity:
    “Going Dark”—No posts at all.
    “Ops Normal”—Posting like normal, no acknowledgement of the issue. It is a risky but sometimes good choice when there is an issue like a celebrity death that has little effect on your brand, but may cause a disturbance if you post about it. Sometimes it is best to ignore it.
    Acknowledgement—Posting or releasing some statement and otherwise going dark out of respect or company protocol.
    Hybrid schedule—An acknowledgment of the issue followed by your normal posting schedule. In the event of truck fire, you may want to inform customers that there were no injuries and that routes will be run with no delays. You could then continue with your normal editorial calendar or opt to make some educational posts on how to reduce combustion incidents by proper disposal of household hazardous waste.
  • Plan to fail. Even the sincerest post can trigger offense in someone. Not posting at all can also be a problem for some brand fans—”Hey, aren’t you guys going to say anything about this?!” Decide how you’ll handle the potential positive and negative responses and inform your team.

Do Not Be Afraid to Take Risks
Some of the best marketing has come from someone brave enough to take lemons and make lemonade. Do you remember the Super Bowl XLVII blackout? Nabisco “won the Internet” with an incredibly well-timed tweet about how you can still dunk your Oreo cookies in the dark. Their marketing staff was well-versed in the brand’s guidelines and positioning and were prepared to respond to any Super Bowl-related events—and you can bet they had a disaster plan in place just in case that tweet did not go over well with fans. A “crisis” is a marketer’s time to shine. Keep your marketing team well-informed of industry trends and current events.

This article was written by Jessica Shrout for the March 2019 issue of Waste Advantage Magazine.