It’s every CEO’s worst nightmare: Getting a call in the middle of the night from their marketing team, saying they’re at the center of an unexpected corporate crisis. The CEO’s actions in the minutes, hours and days after the crisis breaks can have a profound impact on their company’s future, its brand equity and ultimately, its bottom line.

It’s absolutely essential for companies of every size to think about crisis management. If you’re representing a large company – it’s essential to write out that plan. Let’s talk about the fundamentals.

  1. Speed, speed, speed. Clear your calendar, and call your team together. Define the problem, and determine what you want to say to the public. At this stage, you’ll want to address the crisis, correct any factual inaccuracies and outline how you plan to fix the problem. You should publish this statement online (and send it to reporters, if necessary) within 3 hours of the crisis breaking.
  2. It takes a lot of tools to build a house. You’ll want to use multiple platforms to get your message out. If you’re the average socially-savvy company, you most likely have a website, a blog, a Twitter feed, a YouTube channel and a Facebook fan page. Publish your message across these platforms. During a corporate crisis, traffic at your website will most likely spike, as curious people log on to see what you’ve said. Post a link on your front page with your response.
  3. What do I say? Your response must be straight-forward and honest. The public may have a negative opinion of your brand at that moment, and it’s important that you tell them the truth. Issue frequent updates during the crisis, and make sure you’re reporting actual developments in the story. Every crisis is different, so you’ll need to craft your message appropriately. Do you issue a voluntary recall of a dangerous product, or do you offer rebates to affected customers? Do you make changes to your corporate policies? Do you apologize?
  4. Change is the only constant. A crisis can morph, shift direction or focus on a new element you did not originally think of. You must keep your ears open during a crisis, to figure out what people are saying. Respond accordingly. You do not want to lose control of your message.
  5. Keep your promises. After the crisis, report back to the public on your promises. Demonstrate why they should trust your brand again.

With these ideas in mind, let’s take a look at a few real-world examples of crisis management, in our newly-social world.

Domino’s: One of the best-known corporate disasters – and rebounds – in recent history. In mid-2009, two Domino’s Pizza employees posted a disturbing video on YouTube of themselves fouling a customer’s order. The company’s brand perception plummeted across the nation. Domino’s immediately issued a cardboard response that crisis experts generally agreed was too weak. As the story gained momentum, Domino’s was forced to reevaluate its crisis response plan. Within days, the CEO of Domino’s issued a more decisive video, which outlined in plain language how he felt, and what he planned to do. (Here’s the link: click here) Sales at Domino’s have since recovered.

Nestle: Earlier this year, Greenpeace activists turned the screws on Nestle, launching a viral video campaign encouraging the company to stop using palm oil in its chocolate – saying palm oil was contributing to tropical deforestation. Nestle’s Facebook page became ground zero for anti-Nestle sentiment online. The company’s marketing team lashed out at commenters on the page, warning that they’d delete comments from people who used the Nestle logo as their avatar. The story got picked up in the mainstream press, and Nestle’s head of marketing issued a statement, saying she was “horrified” by the tone of the company’s Facebook moderators. Ouch. (Here’s one of the flashpoints in the debate: click here)

Southwest: Movie director Kevin Smith, who created the iconic films “Clerks” and “Mallrats,” has never met a cheeseburger he didn’t like. He’s… a little rotund. But a Southwest Airlines crew stepped into a world of hurt when they kicked him off a flight to Southern California because they determined he was too fat to fly. Smith launched an excoriating attack on his Twitter page, blog and podcast. Southwest apologized on their blog, but not before Smith vowed to boycott the airline, and encouraged his fans to follow suit.

If you have the time, we encourage you to check out other online corporate crises, including Pepsi’s racy AMP iPhone app, the “United (Airlines) Breaks Guitars” song on YouTube, the Motrin Moms viral video and Microsoft’s Photoshop disaster in Poland.

Recent history shows us that it is possible for a company to recover from a corporate crisis, if you’re smart about social media.