Don’t let your audience fill in the blanks

Does any of this sound familiar?

“The other person/group/company is at fault. Not us.”

“Yeah, some people are mad about this <fill in the blank>, but our brand will survive.”

“People are really making a big deal out of one small mistake. Let’s just wait for it to blow over.”

“We’ve experienced serious setbacks in the past and will continue to do so. There’s no need to overreact.”

“We can survive a few bad headlines/reviews/comments/missteps – people know what we stand for as a company.”

“Let’s see where we are tonight/tomorrow/next week and reassess.” It’s the sound of executives rationalizing inertia in the face of a brewing crisis.

This kind of wishful thinking may be reassuring in the moment, but the pain will only be greater down the line. Too many organizations waste precious time convincing themselves they don’t need to react to a situation that threatens their brand.

Procrastination is the biggest, earliest and often costliest mistake you can make in a crisis. You have a very short window in which to plan your defense strategy. Don’t waste it.

It’s human nature to want to wait for a bad situation to magically blow over. But curiosity is human nature too. As soon as people find out your company is experiencing “a situation,” they will want to know more.

If you don’t preemptively answer the obvious questions, the press and the public will happily make the answers up for you. While you’re playing the waiting game, they’re playing Madlibs.

Most companies that opt to wait out a few bad headlines don’t realize they could be slowly losing customers. Silence leads to mistrust, suspicion, and speculation. People tend to assume the worst.

Let’s face it, negative speculation is way more entertaining than giving you the benefit of the doubt. As marketers well know, people like stories. If you don’t find a way to tell yours, your audience will make one up.

Psychiatrist Paul Conrad coined the term “apophenia” to describe our tendency to perceive connections between unrelated things.

Whether it’s a face emerging from the wallpaper or a conspiracy theory cobbled together from random facts, the brain wants to see patterns. Your audience will use reference points from the current culture to turn your crisis into a story.

You are especially vulnerable if the situation you’re facing reflects something that’s happening in the culture – for example, a sexual harassment issue in the me-too era. In our social media fueled age of rumors and conspiracy theories, controlling the message is more important than ever before. It doesn’t help that the culture has ADD. Folks just want the top line – forget about nuance and details.

You’re getting judged in the court of public opinion, and you have to be your own defense attorney. Some companies respond to the public’s hunger for information by putting out a single generic holding statement – something really vague like “we will get back to you when we have more information.”

They may release a tepid follow up or not even bother. That’s a major error. All you’re doing is calling attention to the issue – a second opportunity for Madlibs.

Not only does your first statement need to be specific, it has to be followed up by regular updates to fill the silence. Thinking fast in a crisis can only help you so much if you didn’t think ahead to begin with. Here’s some top questions to ask yourself:

Do you have a strong brand message?

Does your social media have a voice and personality?

Did you create a solid community before you need one?

This is the true ROI of a strong social media presence with consistent communication. It protects you from being defined by others when you are at your most vulnerable. It’s hard to defend your reputation without solid foundational communications.

If your brand message is unclear, your audience will provide the tone your brand represents – to them. And your message will devolve into a Madlibs free-for-all, a game no brand can win.