Okay. Imagine you are in crisis and it’s your job to respond. The CEO is on the phone from his alpine chalet wanting to know why he needs to fly back immediately and some of your colleagues are starting to pack desk items into cardboard boxes with glum “resigned” faces.

Someone somewhere has got a major problem with you, your brand or one of your products or services and has gone public in a big way. It might be a particularly well-connected but disgruntled customer or perhaps you have been forced to recall a product for reasons of safety. I’m sure you can conjure up your own special Monday morning nightmare scenario.

Either way, it was unexpected, it’s happened on your patch and watch, you are unprepared, it’s frightening and fast moving and you fear it’s too late to save the brand and even if it weren’t, you wouldn’t know where to start.

Modern communications technology has turbo-charged the ripples of disquiet which move faster and further than every before.

So how can you be better prepared and become your brands’ saviour at it’s hour of greatest need?

We’ll, we could do worse than learn from those who have got it wrong and right in the past.

Habitat = Don’t

Try not to create the crisis yourself.

A few years ago, someone at Habitat (the iconic British homewares brand) decided that they should use Twitter to communicate with prospective new customers. All good so far and not a crisis … yet.

Unfortunately, the numpty tasked with doing this overlooked the global nature of Twitter and the irrelevance of Habitat to 90% of users. Worse, was the decision to use hash tags about the Iraqi elections to try and appear in more trending searches.

This was the Twitter equivalent of spam. Habitat made matters worse by not responding or apologising for the error, leaving thousands of people with a negative perception of the brand. They created the crisis and then failed to deal with the fall out.

Lesson learned?

Like Facebook and LinkedIn, Twitter is a communications phenomenon, widely used by those who exert influence or like to think they do. It is immediate, real-time and has the most remarkable reach. A 10-year old can now ruin a brand reputation that took 30 years or more to build.

If you don’t have people or PR/marketing consultants in your organisations who are experts in the etiquette, don’t go anywhere near it. If you do, listen hard to the conversations before saying anything. If you find negative, damaging or potentially catastrophic comment, apologise and be conciliatory. Whatever you do, don’t do or say anything that escalates the issue. It will spread like wild fire.

Dell = Do

Jeff Jarvis is a very influential and well-connected blogger. He bought a Dell computer and had a problem with it and the subsequent service he received. On his blog he posted that “the machine is a lemon and the service is a lie.”

Because of his numerous blog followers, their status updates, tweets, back links and other “shares”, his blog post found itself at the top of the first page of Google results when a search for “Dell” was performed. Dell.com dropped to second place.

Needless to say, this very public negative sentiment did not go unnoticed either by the stock markets or Michael Dell himself. The share price had a wobble and Michael Dell called Jeff Jarvis for a “chat”.

Now, Mr Dell is not a numpty. Instead of remonstrating with Jeff Jarvis and insisting that he remove the offending blog post he asked Jeff what he could do to put things right.

The result was “Direct to Dell” a website that disgruntled users could go to in order to escalate a complaint or problem. He went further and set up “IdeaStorm”, another new website where customers could get involved with future product and service development. Dell then went on to post millions of dollars of sales via Twitter.

Lesson learned?

Mr Dell took a negative complaint and turned it into a positive PR win. Smart organisations realise that a disgruntled customer is an evangelist waiting to be converted.

So what 5 things can you do at your organisation to avoid self-inflicted crises and be ready to respond effectively to an unexpected firestorm in which your reputation is at risk?

1. Train all of your people on the appropriate use of social media at work and get them well-connected
2. Appoint and train one person as your digital “fire warden”
3. Have them write and distribute a plan that kicks in when a crisis hits
4. Make sure that the response is consistent, conciliatory and “we will fix this and here’s how”, whether the criticism is justified or not.
5. Don’t let anyone do or say anything that could prolong the issue.

At worst, you will limit and curtail the damage. At best you will have gone up in the estimation of anyone who sees your valiant attempts to put things right, even if they didn’t see or fully understand the initial disquiet.

Mark Walmsley is the Strategy Director at Vivid Lime, a friendly, responsive and extremely agile digital marketing agency based in London.

Mark Walmsley