Think before you speak: a checklist for reactive comms

Think before you speak: a checklist for reactive comms

Hollie Abbott

Hollie Abbott

The 24/7 news cycle lets us see and listen to what’s happening all over the world as soon as it happens and thanks to the social media machine, we’re able to instantly react to these stories and trends. Whether it’s simply acknowledging it through a like on Facebook or Twitter or getting involved in the conversation with others, the free speech nature of social media has given us the power to immerse ourselves in the news. And that includes brands too. In fact, we’re increasingly seeing brands take a stance on polarising topics to show their audience that they too are entitled to an opinion and are ‘in the know’ of what’s going on. But sometimes companies and brands can be too quick to comment on what’s going on or not think it through properly, being too invested and focused on getting in on the conversation before it dies down. And it can have repercussions on their reputation.

We all remember the controversial Kendall Jenner Pepsi advert which caused outrage on social media for trivialising the Black Lives Matter movement, and most recently BrewDog got caught out for its ‘solid gold’ beer campaign that misled winners to believe the can was worth £15,000, when actually it was made out of brass. Elsewhere, did anyone in the UK really notice that Richard Branson went into space on the day of the Euro 2020 final? It was certainly a big moment for Virgin and Richard Branson, but when you’re competing with the final of a football game that a country hasn’t seen in 55 years, you probably won’t get much cut through in the media. It was only really after the weekend that people had noticed Branson had gone into space, but the moment had already really passed.

Not every campaign is going to reap amazing results or cut through the audience every time. Hey, if we could predict the news agenda a week in advance, us PRs would be laughing! But what we can do is be strategic with our campaigns and put steps in place to ensure our tactics aren’t missing the mark completely. Follow this checklist next time you’re putting together a reactive comms strategy:

Careful what you hook onto. Focusing comms around the news agenda can be a minefield and hooking onto sensitive issues can end up biting you in the back. Last year we saw lots of brands react to the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matters protests, pushing out comms to stand in solidarity with the issues. However, for some brands, this only opened a can of worms when employees and some customers surfaced stories of how the brand had actually been discriminating against minority groups. If you choose to hook onto sensitive issues, make sure to think about what else you can contribute other than just words. People will see through your tactics and realise you’re trying to boost awareness or sales at your company if you’re just trying to jump on the bandwagon.

Take your time to catch all the details. In today’s fast-moving digital world, brands and companies want to do news hijacking and stunts as quickly as possible to ensure they’re getting into the conversation while the topic is hot. But when we’re working quickly, sometimes we can lose attention and forget the smaller details as a result. Make sure you’re proofing and proofing again to catch those pesky spelling errors or little details that we might miss. Don’t forget that punctuation also matters.

Many hands make light (and better) work. When we put together a big PR idea or campaign, it’s a good idea to crowdsource opinions from a wide group of people because we are often so immersed  in the idea that sometimes we don’t see the potential consequences. Whether it’s internal or external, make sure to gather opinions and feedback from a variety of ethnicities, genders and nationalities. This can also be a good exercise to spot errors and suggest what could go wrong so that you can plan better and ensure your idea will stay on the mark.

Tailor your campaign to each country. If it’s an international campaign you’re working on, be aware that you can’t just take a blanket approach. Different countries have different senses of humour, different cultures, and just generally different ways of communicating with one another. What’s harmlessly neutral in one country or region might be offensive in another. So, keep your ear to the ground and use your local employees or PR agencies to help you define what works.

Do a quick sanity check on the news. 2020 completely threw out all our marketing and comms plans, thanks to coronavirus, and since then marketers have become more wary of how quickly plans can change. You never know what might be around the corner, so it’s a good idea to do a quick check on the news channels to see if any breaking news might impact your campaign and make your brand or company look insensitive. And if you’re banking on a certain result to come out, e.g. from a football game, make sure you have a plan B or even prep two campaigns so you’re prepared for either outcome. Footballer Joe Hart learnt this the hard way when posting “job done” on social media after his team lost in the Europa League. Oops!

Have a plan for the worst-case scenario. Even after you’ve followed the steps above, you can’t accurately predict how your campaign will go down with the audience so it’s important to be prepared for the worst-case scenario and have plans in place to react to backlash or negativity quickly, if necessary. Take a look at our CEO’s piece for some great crisis comms tips to help.

However big or small your campaign or PR idea, we can’t always get it right or please everyone every single time, but it helps to be cautious and check and double check that that’s what you really want to say to your audience. With so many eyes on the internet and social media, mistakes will almost certainly get picked up, however small they are, and how you react matters.

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