The right message is just smart business

In responding quickly and effectively to the controversy over arrests at its Philadelphia location this Spring, Starbucks provided a masterclass in how to handle crisis communications in today’s fast paced, digital world of 24-hour news and rampant social media.

Rather than brushing off the racially charged incident as isolated, Starbucks acknowledged the problem and addressed it publicly. Starbucks turned the public relations nightmare around by ensuring its response was comprehensive. By closing more than 8,000 U.S. stores and all 1,200 locations in Canada for one day so that all of its employees could undergo anti-bias training, Starbucks showed it was ready to take meaningful action and that a public apology was not enough.

In today’s more intense and immediate media environment, companies big and small must respond to crises with action that is quick, authentic, and transformative. A thorough strategic communications plan is vital to any business strategy. When the two are woven well together, a business has much greater control over its image in the marketplace.

Not every business has the resources of Starbucks, but there are a number of things every company can do to ensure it is always maintains the best possible image and doesn’t suffer damage to its brand:

1. Have a crisis communications strategy ready

Plan for the best and be ready for the worst. No one company is perfect and therefore the best laid plans may sometimes go astray. Turning a negative PR incident around and changing the narrative is not easy, but if your crisis communications strategy honestly addresses the issue in a timely manner, it can garner national attention and turn a bad story around. Transparency and honesty are key; if you try to spin the story, others will see that immediately and it will backfire. 

2. Invest in earned media

Don’t wait until a crisis arrives to build relationships with the media. It takes some time and energy, but understanding the media environment and establishing good relations with journalists can help to build your image and position you to withstand controversy. Sometimes it’s as simple as writing an op-ed about what’s newsworthy about your business and placing it where your intended audience will see it. Bonus: unlike advertising, earned media doesn’t cost anything!

3. Understand your social media strategy

Online engagement is now the most likely way for your customers to form their first impression of your business: your values, what you have to offer and how you treat your clients. And yet many businesses treat social media as an afterthought and don’t engage strategically. Having a Facebook or Twitter account is not enough; it must be used effectively to engage your audience in a meaningful way. This is not something that should be left to a junior staff member. You must invest in the right messaging tools.

4. Revisit your website with a critical eye

A website in today’s digital age is your business’s retail store front. User design and experience should be a top priority and search engine optimization a requirement. Your website cannot be static. Looking at it periodically with a critical eye in terms of messaging, design and discoverability and making changes when necessary allows you to remain competitive and relevant. It’s also extremely important to attracting new customers and retaining current ones.

5. Don’t forget about internal communications

A business can have the strongest social media strategy, a perfect website and the best product, but it means nothing if those closest to the business are not happy. In today’s environment of Google Reviews, your people are your brand ambassadors. It’s so important to communicate with them and empower them to be advocates for you. Embracing an inclusive workplace and valuing the people working hard for you goes a long way. 

Communications and business success are intrinsically linked, and always have been. But in today’s fast pace world, recognizing this has never been more important. 

As President and Founder of Syntax Strategic, Jennifer is a leader in the strategic communications sector. She was named one of the ‘Top 25 People in the Capital’ by Ottawa Life Magazine, and was also a finalist for Ottawa’s ‘Female Entrepreneur of the Year’. Jennifer has worked with several clients in a number of sectors, including petroleum, automotive, nuclear, pharmaceutical, technology and Aboriginal affairs.