What to do in a crisis – Marketing Contingency Plan


What should the marketing team do when a disaster or bad news headlines dominate the news and social media? Since we can never foresee all eventualities, a good marketing contingency plan allows you to address unexpected events.

Sadly, we live in a world where bad news is a regular occurrence. At times like this marketing, sales and profit are far down everyone’s priority list. However although world events are outside of our control, the marketing and communications teams have a responsibility to have a marketing contingency plan in place and be ready to act.

1. Why do I need a Marketing Contingency Plan?

Despite our best efforts sometimes marketing activity has to be pulled or changed at short notice. A Marketing Contingency Plan means that all tasks are listed and all stakeholders considered in advance so that you can focus on putting the plan into practice rather than having to make it up as you go along.

Much earlier in my career I launched a summer travel promotion with the catchy headline “Shops to die for”. Before the mailpiece had landed there was a dreadful travel incident involving fatalities. As the project lead my priority was to make sure that the (with hindsight) poorly worded travel promotion did not offend anyone in light of this, and most importantly, did not land on the doormat of anyone affected by the incident.

What could I do? Firstly I contacted Royal Mail to halt the mailpiece from being delivered – thankfully some were still at sorting offices. Secondly, I checked our data to try to identify if any of the names and locations matched those involved in the incident (thankfully not). With those immediate measures in place I was later able to reprint the mailer – with a different headline – and schedule it to be sent at an appropriate date in the future.

Other examples of response from the world of advertising and media include Fox removing an episode of Family Guy from their website which could cause offence, Nike pulling their Oscar Pistorius adverts following his arrest, and Barclays pulling their advertising in the wake of the Libor scandal.

Whether the events are directly related to your own organisation or industry, or the other side of the world, a Marketing Contingency Plan will allow you and your team to save valuable time and ensure that nothing is forgotten in the heat of the moment. There are some key steps that any Marketing Contingency Plan should include:

2. Review all current activity planned and booked

Starting with any activity that is live – review it to ensure that it is not likely to cause offence or be inappropriate given recent events. Consider the creative used, the copy, phrases used, your media choice etc. Does innocent content have a different context in light of the bad news headlines?

Check your website – is there anything on there that could be inappropriate? Review your social media presence and don’t forget to review any scheduled messages that might be poorly timed or not appropriate in light of what has happened. Delete them or rephrase them so that they are not insensitive to the current situation.

Hopefully, your organisation already has a crisis management team or draft contingency plan in place. If not, pull together a representative from all relevant areas – PR, customer communications, social media team and any operational areas that may need to be involved.  The benefit of cross working is that each area will have a slightly different perspective and raise new perspectives that will help you define an appropriate response.  Some of the actions may be practical steps to be taken internally, and inevitably there will be a communications angle that needs to be owned and delivered.

Do other teams around the organisation need manpower to support them? If your team can spare a few people to help answer the phones or be present on location then that is a great way to help customers and build internal bonds at the same time. I’ve done this myself many times and have always gained personally from the experience as well as providing a useful service to colleagues and customers.

4. Focus on customer information

Fast and accurate information is essential when the unexpected occurs. Brief but informative communications will go a long way in helping and supporting any customers or stakeholders during a crisis.  Make use of immediate tools such as your company website, social media profiles, and PR contacts to issue information as appropriate. Email your customers and suppliers with information if necessary.

The tone of communication is critical when bad news strikes – aim for humility and helpfulness.  Keep your organisation and its role in perspective. How important is it to sell widgets when there more important human considerations?

Now’s not the time to cling desperately to creative brand values but make sure that senior stakeholders are on board with the plan so that approvals can be obtained or waived at short notice if required.

5. Agree on a proactive communications strategy

Would your organisation benefit from a pro-active communications strategy in light of events? Tescos obviously felt so a few years back when they took out full page ads regarding the horse meat scandal.

Take care to get the tone and message right – no-one wants to hear about your organisation’s latest product when there are bigger issues at stake.

I was asked this week whether it was appropriate to comment on social media in light of an incident, and in my view it is good practice for organisations to publish a message on social media expressing sympathy and understanding and support of those involved.

6. Communicate internally

Once steps have been taken to review existing campaigns take the time to communicate what has been done internally. Colleagues across the organisation, not just your senior team, will want to know how you are responding to events.  Write clear, concise emails that spell out the steps that are being taken and when to expect a further update.  I’ve found that this is hugely appreciated and also avoids receiving a multitude of enquiries which could take up precious crisis-management time.

Marketing in a global village

Marketing and communications play a vital role in providing information at times of crisis and when bad news dominates the headlines. With social media events have an immediate impact regardless of where they occur, and there is every chance that customers and employees are personally affected by what has happened. It is essential that every marketing and communications professional is sensitive to and responds appropriately to events happening around us.

Roisin Kirby is an experienced Marketing Consultant based in Nottingham (UK).

Also published on Medium.

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Roisin Kirby is an experienced Marketing Consultant based in Nottingham (UK), specialising in education and services marketing. A Chartered Marketer and Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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