Being in business, especially one that’s as unpredictable as the cannabis space or even digital media (data breach anyone?), requires planning for the inevitable – a crisis. Regardless of what the actual crisis is, having a plan in place helps you get organized and ready for reacting even if, at the time of planning, you’re not sure what you may be reacting too.
The recent vaping illnesses in the news is just one example. As of December 5, 2019, there have been ~2,200 cases of vaping related illnesses and ~48 deaths. These unfortunate events have changed the game. From what was first assumed to be isolated to black-market products, it has now crossed over into a crisis level issue for the legal adult-use market.
When a public relations crisis hits it doesn’t announce itself and thus the need for prepared responses and a course of action. The ease of access to social media and the distribution of potentially incorrect information by well-meaning individuals requires brands to be ready. Among the tools of prepared professionals are holding statements, trained spokespeople, social media monitoring with planned responses and preset courses of action for likely scenarios.
We spoke to Robert Nachbar a 23-year strategic communications and PR veteran currently Principal at Kismet Communications for his take on the critical steps a firm can take to prepare themselves for the inevitable:
1. There’s Opportunity in Crisis: Yes, a crisis is by definition terrifying. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t also opportunities to be had. If your company or product has undergone rigorous manufacturing processes to ensure the highest quality standards, this would be a good time to prominently showcase those credentials. While you don’t necessarily want to be perceived as being an opportunist who is exploiting a crisis, you can at the very least ensure that you are the one controlling the message.
2. Doing Nothing is Not a Strategy: Doing and saying nothing in the midst of a crisis tends to be the default mode for individuals or entities embroiled in a crisis. “Perhaps the crisis will come to a conclusion before we need to do anything” is an all too common refrain. The best time to plan for a crisis is before one occurs. Even if you don’t know the exact nature of what a particular crisis might be, you can still define a crisis communications plan that will at the very least provide a foundation for response. A good crisis plan can be adapted for any number of scenarios and should at a minimum, identify the key stakeholders and their roles, have prepared holding statements that can be modified and used to respond to press queries, and define an approved chain-of-command workflow that will help you proactively respond to any variety of unforeseen situations.
3. Focus on What You Can Control: At the moment, there is a great deal of uncertainty and conflicting information circulating in media reports and online. Are these reported health issues limited only to cannabis products? Are they related to specific hardware products or cartridges? Is vitamin E acetate the true culprit here? Until epidemiology experts have enough data and time to identify the root cause, we will continue to see the crisis flare with health and industry experts weighing in with their theories and suppositions. The one thing for certain is that uncertainty is the oxygen that fuels that all crises and any party that has something at stake here would be well served to tune out the noise and focus on the things they can control.
4. Everyone is Affected: Even if your business isn’t directly linked to the issue at hand, it doesn’t mean that it won’t be negatively impacted. For instance, even if health officials are able to conclusively prove that these health issues are limited to cannabis products, companies that produce nicotine related products are still going to face continued questions about the safety of their own products. One of the first and most valuable lessons of PR is simple: perception is reality. So long as there is a perception that a product or category is unsafe, the potential for long-term damage remains significant.
“To quote an old axiom, ‘Crisis doesn’t create character, it reveals it’. In this particular instance. I believe this maxim holds true in the context of how businesses and the individuals who work for them, respond to dramatic and unforeseen circumstances. As we’ve seen over the past few years, people are just as likely to remember how a particular brand or personality responded to a crisis as the event that precipitated the crisis in the first place. And just as with any personal crisis, a business crisis can prove to be an unparalleled opportunity for reflection, exploration, and growth if you are willing to put the hard work in.” stated Nachbar.
How the current vaping concerns play out remains to be seen. Regardless of how the issue is ultimately resolved, the emerging cannabis industry is being impacted. In some ways it’s subtle others will be less so. Words to the wise brands; be prepared before you need to act.
Robert Nachbar is a marketing communications pro with more than two-decades experience helping enterprise and consumer technology companies express and elevate their brand message. He is passionate about translating complex concepts and making them accessible to a broader audience.