How to avoid a social storm during a crisis

These days, reputation is everything. Take control of how news of a crisis is delivered to employees, customers and the general public by developing a solid crisis communication plan.

By Chuck Green

Perhaps your community bank has been the victim of a data breach, jeopardizing the personal information of scores of customers. Or perhaps a major storm has caused extensive damage or destroyed your bank’s equipment and facilities. Without a proper plan in place, crises like these could be causes for panic as bank leaders scramble to manage the message to customers and the wider public. But with a crisis communication plan that outlines how employees should handle the news, including their social media use, your bank comes out of the crisis looking proactive and efficient, rather than chaotic.

It’s not a simple proposition, however. In today’s world, expecting that employees won’t prematurely post on social media about a crisis may be unreasonable, says crisis communications and communications strategy expert Lindsay Strand, president and CEO of Lindsay Strand Associates. But community banks can proactively set expectations and build a trusting environment, which will help ease social woes. “Have a general social media policy and share it with employees when they’re hired,” she says. “In terms of having a plan for crisis communications, explain how and why a plan will benefit everyone: employees, their colleagues and the bank’s reputation. [Employees] can be your best ambassadors.”
While conceding that total compliance can be a tall order, Jimmy Rasmussen, president and CEO of $585 million-asset HomeTown Bank in Galveston, Texas, says his institution encourages employees to be cautious about their general social media habits. “We preach to them all the time and think they understand the importance of discretion,” notes Rasmussen.

It’s also true of Texas First Bank, based in Galveston County, which set up social media guidelines and instituted a social media policy that was distributed to all employees, notes Corinna Bahr, marketing manager of the $1 billion-asset community bank. Employees review the policy annually, and management works together to constantly monitor online outlets to try to mitigate impact, says Bahr.

Meanwhile, Texas First Bank carries out conversations on internet channels, proactively communicating with employees about what’s happening, what it’s doing to find a solution, what employees can share and when they can either expect the next update or a resolution, Bahr says. “The beauty of social media is it’s a conversation.”
HomeTown Bank also maintains regular contact with employees by cell phone, email and texting, says Rasmussen. “If they’re out of town, we get numbers.”
There are benefits to this level of communication beyond crisis management. According to a study by Demand Metric, companies with employee engagement levels over 50 percent retain more than 85 percent of their customers.

There’s some way to go on this, though. A study by Kronos, which specializes in workforce management, revealed that 49 percent of surveyed employees felt the financial services industry could become more transparent by encouraging clear and open communication.

Doug Donsky, senior managing director of FTI Consulting’s Strategic Communications segment, says working with employees reinforces their understanding of the situation and prepares them for calls they might receive about a crisis. “Banks should provide a sense of why a particular social media policy is being circulated, so employees are capable of responding appropriately,” he notes.

Planning makes perfect
A solid crisis communication plan also makes a difference. It starts with developing what Strand calls “guiding principles for success.” These include identifying and correcting potential internal threats. “It helps organizations to ‘live’ their brand, rather than creating a crisis plan that feels overwhelming and outside their comfort zone,” she explains.

Texas First Bank’s Bahr says that before any crisis occurs, community banks can prepare by making a plan, establishing an internal emergency response team and practicing responding to simulated incidences. If it does happen, communicate strategically and be straightforward with employees, customers and regulatory entities, she adds.

“Plan, plan, plan,” adds Rasmussen, “and be flexible enough to change those plans.”
Strand notes that effective planning shouldn’t lull you into becoming so comfortable with known weaknesses that you ignore—or can’t see—possible warning signs. “Every six months, ask yourself what keeps you up at night,” she says, “and make a plan to address whatever that is.”

She also cautions against overtasking your leadership team during a crisis. “When an organization creates a crisis team, they tend to name the same people to the team who they also expect to be operationally handling the crisis.” Instead, Strand recommends identifying who is responsible for the operational execution of stabilization and recovery, and who is responsible for crisis communications.

Along those lines, Bahr says Texas First Bank determines the set of people who will get together based on the nature of the incident to determine the right course of action, and practices responding to various simulated incidences with that set of people throughout the year.
Then, if a crisis does occur, the bank can not only keep things running smoothly but also feel confident that a stray tweet won’t derail its efforts to get back on track.

Crisis plan in action

Hurricane Harvey left unwelcome deposits at two of HomeTown Bank’s seven branches. President and CEO Jimmy Rasmussen was surprised by the impact of the storm at two of its sites, in League City and one of its two locales in Friendswood, Texas, since the community bank considered them the least vulnerable to flooding due to their elevation and flood-free history. “They were our ‘go-to’ spots in the event of a storm,” Rasmussen says.

In fact, bank officials later asked themselves if they’d selected the wrong locations when they identified those two branches as the most reliable among its seven. “We decided we didn’t,” Rasmussen remarks. “No one could predict 51 inches of rain.”

Meanwhile, Texas First Bank formulated a predetermined response plan in the event a hurricane formed in the Gulf, explains marketing manager Corinna Bahr. Even before Harvey had fully formed, the community bank’s cross-functional management team was working together to monitor the situation and determine what, if any, communication to customers needed to happen, Bahr says. —Chuck Green

Chuck Green
is a freelance writer in Illinois.