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How to Be an eCommerce Thought Leader in a Time of Crisis and Grow Your Brand

We’re in unprecedented times: COVID-19 was likely not a scenario in anyone’s crisis planning playbook. But can crisis bring opportunity?

While there have been corporate casualties during the COVID-19 crisis, there sure have been some winners too. For example, Walmart, Amazon, Peleton, and other consumer goods companies have not only fared well but arguably flourished under an influx of increased consumer demand. You can attribute much of this success to effective crisis planning.

These successes highlight the importance of fully understanding how to respond to a crisis. Also, emphasizing the business benefits of creating a positive brand experience during trying times.

So, let’s start by looking at what actually constitutes a crisis and how it’s created.

What is a crisis?

What is a crisis? A crisis is any event that will (or could) lead to an unstable or dangerous situation affecting an individual, company, community, or whole society. During this situation, difficult and important decisions must be made, which can result in positive or negative impacts.

Crisis is universally driven by fear. That’s what feeds the fire during a crisis situation and causes it to escalate. When people are afraid or there’s uncertainty about something, they naturally become fearful.

However, for brands, this is dangerous. Fear often leads to assumptions, rumors, and other developments that can turn a potential crisis into a full-blown crisis. Thus crisis planning is key to any comprehensive business strategy.

What is a Crisis for Your Company?

When crisis planning, it’s important to clarify what is considered a crisis for your company and what is not. Many companies do this by creating a hierarchy of crisis levels.

For example, if an issue is isolated and has not affected many people or isn’t known beyond a few people, this is not a crisis. It could have the potential to be a crisis, but at that level, it is not. We consider this a level one crisis. If the issue spreads and more people are affected, becoming known among a wider group, this is a level two crisis. When the issue becomes public and is affecting a large group, this is likely a full-blown crisis.

Crisis levels
This example from Groundswell shows an alternative 5 level methodology

As part of your crisis planning, you want to create rules on how you treat each crisis level to outline the role you play in proactively communicating during them. This will help guide your communications plan for positioning your senior leadership team and the brand itself.

There are certainly many ways to respond to a crisis and it will largely vary brand to brand. For example, some people tend to retreat and not have a voice or take a stance, others are more neutral, while some take a proactive approach and address the crisis head-on.

But before we delve into how to best position yourself during a crisis, let’s first look at how to best prepare for a crisis situation – ideally minimizing any potential negative impact.

Crisis Planning Fundamentals

1. Build Relationships With Your Key Audience

First, it’s crucial to make sure you actively communicate with your key audiences on a regular basis so you have a strong track record for engaging with them. Don’t wait for a crisis situation to be the first time you focus on building these relationships. Be a good corporate citizen and build strong relationships with key constituents and it will pay dividends later down the line when you really need their support.

It’s worth remembering that if you have a positive reputation and track record, your key audiences are more likely to forgive you when you make a mistake. This preparation work can buy you precious goodwill from both the public, media, and other stakeholders involved. It’s certainly worth the effort.

2. Keep Messaging Consistent

During a crisis situation it is more important than ever to bring your “A Game”. You want to make sure you deliver a consistent message time and time again. Do this by using similar messaging for internal and external audiences and try not to deviate from the company’s line.

If you put out different messages, it can negatively affect your credibility and make you look suspicious. It’s ok to update your message as the situation evolves, but it should still stay consistent. Look for ways to incorporate your brand messages, which you would ideally have defined in your crisis planning. Whether it is on your website, in media interviews or internal meetings, incorporate your key brand messages and cover your bases. 

3. Utilize any Increased Exposure

While no one wants to be in a crisis situation, it’s actually a unique opportunity where you have the attention of your key audiences. All eyes are on you, but if your response is well-received, the results can be lucrative.

Most of the time, brands are trying to get their customers and potential customers to pay attention to them — through marketing, advertising or digital channels – and during a crisis, they actually want to hear from you.  Don’t run away from this: use it to create a positive brand experience and actually build stronger relationships with employees, customers and attract new customers. These potential advocates will also help you in future crisis planning.

Once you have nailed these crisis planning fundamentals, let’s move on with how you would structure your responses when the crisis hits.

Formulating Your Response: Where do you Begin?

When thinking about how to communicate with key audiences during a crisis, where do you start, how do you know what to say and where to say it?

These are all questions you need to be able to answer as part of your crisis planning. Here’s how:

  • First, identify who your key audiences are – employees, customers, potential customers, investors, etc.
  • Secondly, identify where they are and how to reach them – email, text, social channels, PR, paid digital, traditional advertising, etc. so you know the best way to engage
  • Finally, clarify what you want to communicate and how you can stand out – you want to be authentic and not be seen as taking advantage of the situation, but you also don’t want to add to the noise.  Ensure you communicate in a meaningful way and stay away from fluff or jargon in your messaging

Follow these three simple rules and you will always deliver relevant and timely responses via appropriate channels that are guaranteed to have optimal impact.

But what if that isn’t enough and you want to take it to the next level?

Creating a Crisis Planning Thought Leadership Strategy

During a crisis, people are scared and looking for resources and information to help guide them through the crisis.  With COVID-19, we have seen how quickly information can change and the need for reliable resources as the situation has unfolded – new learnings, best practices, policy changes, etc.  

In recent months we have seen every company and CEO send out communications about their response to COVID-19. And, in some ways this was appropriate. However, in others, it seemed like they were just sending the communication because it was what everyone else was doing.

Following the status quo didn’t seem meaningful or authentic. As part of your crisis planning, consider whether this will resonate well with your audience. Transparency is key and identifying what you want to take a stance on, and ensuring it is relevant to your target audiences and that it reinforces your brand, is the first step in creating a thought leadership position during a crisis.  

A great example of this is Starbucks. The CEO did a great job communicating about COVID-19 and reinforcing the brand’s mission and values.  Below is an email from the CEO to consumers sent on March 12, 2020.

Example: Starbucks Crisis Planning Response

“At Starbucks, we believe it is our role and responsibility
during this time to prioritize two things: the health and
well-being of our customers and partners while also
playing a constructive role in supporting local health
officials and government leaders as they work to contain
the virus. Through that lens, we will continue to make
decisions with vigilance and courage informed by the
latest science-based information and guided by Our
Mission and Values.

I want to also thank you for supporting our Starbucks
partners who proudly wear the green apron. We have a
long-standing history of caring for our partners,
recognizing they are the heartbeat of Starbucks. That is
why, as we navigate this dynamic situation, in addition
to our sick leave benefit and mental health offerings, we
are also expanding catastrophe pay so that partners do
not need to feel like they need to choose between their
health and their work. 

Thank you for being a loyal customer. It is our intent to
remain transparent, providing the latest information
from Starbucks
here

Starbucks’ resilience is owed to our unwavering Mission
to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person,
one cup and one neighborhood at a time.

We are privileged to serve you and your community and
look forward to seeing you soon.”

This email does a great job of outlining what Starbucks is doing to address the situation, reinforcing its brand/mission. It helps to instil confidence in consumers so they know what their favorite brand is doing, what they can expect and how Starbucks is going to continue updating them as the situation changes, and continue providing a consistent brand experience.

Building on this, next we’re going to glance inward and look at how senior company representatives can position themselves as thought leaders during a crisis. We’ll be tackling 5 top tips that you can put into action either alone or with a team.

5 Top Tips For Becoming A Crisis Planning Thought Leader

1. Don’t be shy when crisis planning

As a business leader, take a proactive approach to communicating with internal and external audiences as part of your crisis planning. This is a time when people want to hear from you – whether it’s via email, your website or other channels. Give them the attention and reassurance that they need, speaking from a trusted position of authority for added gravitas.

2. Communicate with your key audiences on a regular basis

Don’t just communicate at the beginning of the unfolding crisis, but make sure it’s consistent throughout the year. That way your audiences know you’re authentic and are there for the long haul, building up added trust over time.

3. Create opportunities to engage with key stakeholders

Whether it’s through Zoom or other virtual tools, make it personal. Identify the appropriate channels as part of your crisis planning, then you can simply activate your plan when the time is right.

4. Launch new initiatives that are timely and resonate with your key audiences

Now is the time to try out new HR initiatives that can engage employees and help show them how much they’re appreciated. This can also be a good opportunity to launch external initiatives in your community and with customers, further building a community of advocates that can, in turn, support your brand.

These might include:

  • Participating in a food drive or other ways to help people in need
  • Offering flexible pricing or COVID sales to help address consumer concerns about spending money
  • Providing resources to customers – give away free masks with every purchase, or send a COVID care package to customers as a way to let them know you care, offer free Webinars on issues related to your business, etc.

5. Take a proactive crisis planning approach to social and media channels

In a time where social media silence or ‘no comment’ could be deemed an admission of guilt, it pays to get ahead of the game. But rather than jumping straight into defense mode, there are other options that are more tactical.

For example:

  • Draft articles, blogs or vlogs on what you’re doing during these challenging times to meet the needs of your employees and customers – positioning them more as helpful advice – not boasting
  • Launch a PR campaign to secure interviews on local and trade media channels to discuss what you’re doing and encourage other business leaders to help their communities and customers during these challenging times

Ultimately, you want to stay positive – focus on how times are tough, but talk about the future and what we can do now to prepare for the post-COVID phase.

In Conclusion

These are trying times, and people are looking for strong leaders who can guide and support them during this new normal. Take a stance and be there for your employees and customers in a meaningful way. Don’t send out communications just for the sake of it or create content that is fluff.  People will see right through it.

To be a successful leader you must show confidence, be authentic, be caring and show how you are addressing their needs. By following these best practices for crisis planning, you will position yourself as a thought leader and grow your brand. But importantly, you will also help to make a positive impact on the lives of others.

This guest post was written for Yieldify by Shana Harris, COO at Warschawski, a widely recognized thought leader in PR and crisis communications.

Want to learn more about crisis management for e-commerce?
Episode 2 of our new web series, #TrendsOfTomorrow, is all about this topic. Click here to access the full video archives.

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