Crisis Communications Checklist for Retail Businesses

Has your business committed a social media faux pas? An employee, perhaps, did something embarrassing, or maybe your entire industry is getting bad press. How your company communicates through a crisis may impact the entire organization, including profitability and viability.

For an ecommerce or multichannel retail business, a crisis can be anything that negatively impacts a business or disrupts normal business operations.

Business Crises

The most difficult kinds of crises are those that involve injury or death.

In February and March 2018, firearms and gun control have become national topics. Retailers that sell firearms are in a crisis; they are communicating how their practices will change. For example, many major retailers will no longer sell firearms to folks age 18, 19, or 20 even though the law permits it.

Think about the March 2018 announcements from Dick’s Sporting Goods, Walmart, Fred Meyer’s, REI, and L.L. Bean. All of these chains changed their firearms policies in response to industry pressure after the recent and horrible Parkland, Florida school shooting on February 14, 2018.

Less serious but still challenging are crises that attach to your organization’s reputation, its sales, or its viability.

Imagine a brick-and-click retail chain with a robust social media following. There is a cat problem at one of the company’s physical locations. Several cats, which the retailer’s employees believe to be feral, are urinating on and otherwise destroying inventory stored in an outside shelter.

The store manager wants to deal with the cats humanely. He starts to call a cat rescue, but one of the employees stops him. She has safely trapped feral cats before and given them to a friend who helps care for them. She volunteers to capture the cats behind the store in cages (live traps) and make certain they are safe.

Unfortunately, the trapping goes badly. The employee’s live trap worked, but when she picked it up, the cat inside scratched her and she dropped the cage.

Even a cat crisis can seriously interrupt a retailer’s operations, damage its reputation, and reduce sales.

A customer sees the cage drop and interprets the scene differently. To this customer, the employee did not drop a cage but rather was “slamming” a trapped cat on the ground.

Outraged, the customer takes to Facebook with the story of what she saw and perceived. Within an hour, hundreds of once loyal customers are slamming the retailer for animal cruelty.

Crisis Communication Checklist

Retail businesses should plan for crises not wait until they happen and try to figure out what to do next.

Anticipate crises.Start with a list of probable crises your business could face, such as social media outrage or negative industry news.

Come up with at least 10 possible crisis situations each year. This list should guide the balance of your business’s crisis communication planning. In the end, have a crisis communication contingency plan, sometimes called a scenario plan, for each crisis.

Identify your crisis communication team.For each of the crisis scenarios, assemble a crisis communication team.

This team should include:

  • Member or members of executive leadership. For a major crisis, this leader may be the company’s primary spokesperson. In other cases, this person is on board for decision making.
  • Operational leaders or department heads. These are the folks responsible for the impacted areas of the business. In the cat trapping example, this might be the person responsible for physical store operations.
  • Communicators. Your company’s marketing and communications group will manage the message.
  • Outside support. Some crises may require outside support. For example, you may want legal advice.

Consider audiences and select communication channels.For each of your company’s potential crises, consider who your audience will be and which communication channels make the most sense.

If the crisis has to do with outraged customers on Facebook, your company may want to plan for social media messages, email communications, phone calls, and even in-person meetings with customers.

For the cat-trapping example, a retailer might post messages on Facebook, expressing concern, and ask for an opportunity to communicate directly with the concerned customers.

If the customers allow it, emails, phone calls, and a meeting at the physical store might follow.

A graver example, such as a firearms debacle, might require a business to email customers more generally or issue press releases.

Plan crisis messages.Using your scenario plans, begin crafting your company’s crisis messages in advance. You will probably not use these messages verbatim, but planning what could be said will be helpful.

You might start with a template for a simple holding statement. Something like:

We are aware of this situation, and we are working with the customer to resolve it. We will post updates as we learn more.

In all of your crisis communications:

  • Be as transparent and open as is prudent.
  • Take responsibility for your business’s actions.
  • Position your business as a leader and information source.
  • Act quickly; initial statements should come within an hour.

Include an operational strategy.Each crisis contingency plan should have an operational strategy.

For example, according to reports, several large brick-and-click retailers that carry firearms shredded circulars and canceled pay-per-click campaigns that included guns after the aforementioned Florida school shooting.

These businesses recognized an industry crisis and took steps to avoid being insensitive in the wake of horrible tragedy.

Canceling some marketing tactics may be an item on your company’s operational strategy, too.

Decide how to monitor communication challenges.When a crisis happens, how will your business know? Part of managing crisis communications is being aware of it quickly.

Using your company’s list of potential crises as a guide, put monitoring and notification systems in place. This may be as simple as subscribing to a social media monitoring service or as complex as developing emergency notification systems in each of your company’s departments or locations.

Analyze and learn from your response to a crisis.An effective crisis communication plan should include a method to analyze how your business performed during a crisis, to learn. This is similar in concept to the analysis a good marketer will do after running a campaign. You want to know what worked and how to improve.

Adapt your plans to real crises.Your business’s crisis communications contingency plan will be a useful guide when and if a real crisis comes.

While it is likely that your company will need to adapt plans to the reality of the situation, your preparation should pay off with a faster response, a better resolution, and less impact.


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