Part 2: Hacking Connected Homes – How to Prepare for (and Survive) a Crisis

Megan Kessler

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Image by Elmira Strange used under C license.

Even consumer tech companies with the best of intentions – and first-class product and communications teams – can fall victim to a crisis. Consider our previous example of Amazon’s Echo (From Part 1: Hacking Connected Homes - Top Risks to Consumer Tech Companies). It was certainly not Amazon’s first time at the rodeo, and yet, consumer privacy concerns about its voice recognition technology and radio silence from the brand quickly created negative assumptions in initial reviews of the product.  Like most crisis scenarios, this was the result of poor planning.  If only someone had thought through the fact that media (and consumers) would want to know how their recorded data would be used by Amazon – if only…

Protecting your company from crisis

While crisis communications is a primary function of most enterprise PR departments, it’s likely not second nature to emerging, high growth companies – but it needs to be. As any hardened PR pro can tell you, the first step in avoiding a crisis is planning for it. Below is an overview of steps your company can take prior to a crisis to help lower your risks, compliments of our friends at the Institute of PR:
  • Create a crisis management plan – Sit down and make a list of all of the crisis scenarios you can think of, pulling from your knowledge of your products and your competitors’ experiences. ‘Worst-case scenario’ thinking is rarely more useful than it will be in this exercise.  Spotting potential vulnerabilities will be key to avoiding them. If you have the resources, bring in a security specialist to pen test your product and a crisis PR firm and/or legal team to review your privacy statements. 

  • Identify a crisis management team – Who will steer the ship in the event of a crisis?  Will it be your legal team? Your internal or external communications team? Your product management team? Your customer relations team? Your CEO? For most companies, it is some combination of these groups.  Identify the key players in advance so you are ready to activate your crisis strategy immediately if the occasion arises.

  • Designate a spokesperson – Whether you like it or not, media relations will play a huge role in your crisis response strategy.  The days of avoiding negative news coverage with a simple “no comment” are over.  Consumers expect clear and purposeful communication when issues arise and will take to social media to air their grievances if they don’t receive an immediate response.  Designating a company spokesperson – and a PR team to help facilitate your response – will be part and parcel to your success.

  • Pre-draft messages – While not all crisis scenarios can be planned for, many can. Put your ‘worst case scenario’ thinking to good use by crafting suggested responses to media and customers for each circumstance you uncover. Keep a few ‘golden rules’ in mind as you do: avoid responding with “no comment”; avoid jargon or technical terms, as these can be perceived as deception tactic; think through how the crisis will be rectified and provide details and directions to consumers, whenever possible.

  • Identify communications channels – One of the most important considerations in a crisis are communications channels. How will you reach your consumers and where will vital information live online – your social media channels? Your website? Your blog? Through direct email or phone outreach?  Thinking through the necessary channels and devise a step-by-step strategy for disseminating important information in advance can help you respond with immediacy – something consumers expect.

  • Practice makes perfect – Finally, there is no substitute for practice.  Once or twice a year, practice your response to crisis scenarios with your internal and external teams, updating your crisis plan as needed along the way. 

What to do if crisis hits

Even the most prepared organizations can find themselves in an unexpected crisis situation. If this happens, your crisis response should always have two phases:

  • Phase 1: Respond to the crisis – While this one may seem a bit obvious, you’d be surprised how many organizations still opt not to address crises or to respond to media inquiries with “no comment.”  Companies miss a major opportunity to protect – even fortify – their brand when they avoid an appropriate crisis response.  So what comprises an effective crisis response? Speed, accuracy and consistency. 

    • Speed: Whenever possible, respond to a crisis within one hour.  This may seem like an unrealistic timeline, but in today’s 140 character world, this is what consumers expect.  This is why having a crisis plan in place, spokespeople trained and identified, communications channels identified and message templates drafted is so vital.  Speed of response can make or break your company’s success in a crisis scenario – it could also result in your missing your prime opportunity to disseminate key messages through the press, who will be racing the clock to report on your story.

    • Accuracy: When your organization is racing the clock to respond with the 5Ws of what transpired in a crisis scenario, accuracy needs to remain a top priority. Having to go back to the media to change your story several times can make your company appear dishonest.  Checking the facts upfront can help to avoid sticky circumstances and ensure your customers are armed with the most important information.

    • Consistency: Consider how easy it would be for a rogue employee to share misinformation via Twitter or respond to an unexpected call from the media in the midst of a crisis that has your leadership team off the grid. In addition to nailing down and providing details of exactly what happened, why and what’s next for consumers, always consider how you’ll communicate your crisis response internally first.  

  • Phase 2: Repair your reputation and assess key learnings – Crisis averted – now it’s time to go home and lick your wounds and tell your war stories, right? Wrong. Depending on the scope of the crisis, you will need to dedicate time and resources to rebuilding your company’s reputation and reassuring your customers that your products are safe. A positive media relations effort is one popular way to go about this. Look for opportunities to highlight your company’s successes and don’t be afraid to revisit media ‘friendlies’ for follow up stories on how your company is rectifying the situation.  Be sure to deliver the information and/or benefits promised to consumers quickly and comprehensively, as well, to avoid any further backlash.  And never forget to stop and assess what happened and what can be learned from the experience across your organization. Revisit your crisis plan and update it with key insights gained from the experience, addressing any obstacles you encountered and how to avoid them next time.

    Already weathered a crisis?  What was your top lesson learned?

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