Balancing act: using content marketing in a crisis

Crisis management is widely recognised as a highly valuable specialist strand of PR. Its practitioners are skilled at minimising reputational damage and restoring trust and customer loyalty. Generally, they favour a rapid, honest, transparent approach.

But there’s a new kid on the block: content marketing. It’s already widely used as part of many traditional PR campaigns. Why is it then, that to date few crisis management consultants have embraced it as part of their longer-term strategy? Surely it’s a missed opportunity.

A crisis can cast a long shadow over the brand, destroying value slowly. This is exactly when companies need to think about their profile and put out positive messages.

In terms of a current successful crisis management strategy, Merlin Entertainment’s consultants are doing a fantastic job during a truly awful situation to communicate, reassure and regain trust.

Crisis management mode

In May, there was a shocking accident at Alton Towers, owned by Merlin, in which 16 people were injured, four seriously, when their rollercoaster hit an empty train on the track. Merlin immediately went into crisis management mode – but without the corporate lawyers and insurers influencing the response and fretting about liability. Indeed, Merlin immediately took full responsibility, said sorry, contacted the families and the injured, and has worked to support those involved. It updated the media and responded to questions as openly as it could while protecting the victims.

Being challenged by reporters has strengthened its story, leaving readers (who may well be past, present and future park visitors) to form their own judgments. It’s been about (regaining) trust. As Sally Ann Wilkinson, founder of The Firm and Merlin’s PR consultant, says: “For a business that wants to get it right, being challenged is not a bad thing. If you produce the content there’s going to be the potential for readers to say ‘well you would say that, wouldn’t you?’.”

But good PR is about more than being able to convince your audiences that your point is valid. It needs to take them with you on the long haul. And that means follow-up content.

Company blogs have mixed success but surely they could learn much from reality TV stars who are nothing if not content marketers. Kim Kardashian, the corporate – did I mean corpulent? – brand, knows exactly how to attract eyeballs and as a result her brand is worth millions of dollars. Admittedly her crises are on a much smaller scale: rumours of marriage problems, her struggle to conceive, even sartorial errors; but the scale and power of her response is always impressive. She will admit to getting something wrong, maybe make fun of herself and carry on.

Positive follow-up news, moving the story on, sharing the facts and ultimately changing the subject help to keep her brand where she wants it. For example when she told a magazine that her style advice to pregnant women was to stay indoors, she was slated. Her response was to set the record straight (she’d ‘fessed up to the magazine that her pregnancy style had been pretty poor so she confided that she was not one to give advice other than to not go out), and suggested her sister Kourtney was far better placed to comment. She batted positive attention to her sister while belittling herself.

Recovery story

Companies emerging from a crisis need to keep the recovery story going and take their customers with them. Of course, getting information out there is the number one priority when things go wrong in order to have an influence on the story. But once that is done too few are setting up special web pages with answers to frequently asked questions, contact numbers, the facts, statements from the company and most importantly from senior management, as well as useful links. Merlin’s CEO Nick Varney perhaps came closest by making personal statements after the accident, going on record and on camera. His actions reinforced the image that Merlin really cared.

But the idea of going further and posting updates, self-publishing follow-up stories and longer-term corporate responses has barely taken hold. It might go against the grain but when companies do take the plunge, it can take the fire from the ire.

The lessons are slowly being learnt. I suspect that Merlin will be looking at content marketing as an important part of its response to the Alton Towers accident – but they have shown themselves to be sadly unusual among FTSE 100 companies.

Other troubles

At Thomas Cook, on the other hand, the troubles may have only just started. Nine years after a tragedy in which two children died, it was still saying in May that it had nothing to apologise for. It dropped this assertion only after the inquest into the deaths (from carbon monoxide poisoning on a holiday booked through Thomas Cook)  found the company had breached its duty of care. The result is a disgusted public, calls for a boycott and reports in the Financial Times that its web traffic is suffering, and with it presumably bookings and profits.

Content marketing is already an important part of everyday corporate communications, helping to create value. Smart companies such as Merlin are also starting to see that it should be part of the full crisis management strategy, helping to protect their carefully created value. Perhaps Thomas Cook and others will take note.

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