Striking a Balance: How Brands Should Communicate in a Crisis

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By Joost Berends, Co-Founder, Mortierbrigade

Every major crisis in the news brings with it examples of brands that have reacted with the sensitivity of a sledgehammer, and been rightly called out by their customers. While the 24/7 nature of social has meant that brands can offer an immediate, authentic voice to consumers, all too often, a focus on real-time communications has fallen flat on its face and achieved the opposite of what was intended.

The Brussels-based creative agency mortierbrigade, was instrumental in a prime example of a brand getting it right in a crisis: the Brussels public transport system STIB's #itsallofus response to the metro and airport terrorist attacks, which rocked the world earlier this year.  With an honest and empathetic campaign, which spread a message of inclusivity and love throughout the city and beyond - to over 30 countries - and even included the Belgian Royal Family, STIB took part in the media and cultural conversation as a positive force helping to move Brussels forward.

What were the lessons learnt by this real time, ongoing response and how can brands strike a balance between joining a conversation they have a right to take part in and behaving with sensitivity?

Very often the key to successful communication in difficult times, lies in the strategy you have developed a long time before. A strategy that is built on empathy and not taking your customers for granted. An approach that focuses on your social and cultural role in society. For example, over the past year, STIB has built a reputation for not just communicating about its role as a transportation company, but positioning itself as one of the main players continuously working to improve the image of Brussels.

Brussels is a complex city with different communities living together, European headquarters on one hand and very poor districts on the other, three different languages, high and low culture fighting for attention…  These and many more ingredients turn the Belgian capital into an exciting melting pot, loved by some, but hated by many others.  STIB’s ongoing objective is to promote a love for Brussels - and to do it in a very accessible way.

A colorful tone of voice, sometimes lighthearted and witty but always with empathy, with an important role for social media. This has helped to create more sympathy both for the capital and for the brand – with very good results. But then the 22nd of March happened.

No brand has an exact rulebook for how to cope with this kind of terror from a communications perspective. People are in shock and grief and want to share their emotions with others. So as a brand that plays a central role in the events, in the heart of the city that is hurt, you can’t just stand aside and do nothing. You can show you’re hurt as well, without any pretention or commercial messaging. That’s why within hours, the symbol of our campaign, the ‘heart of Brussels’ was spread via STIB’s social media channels – turned from red to black.  We wanted to give the public a way of sharing it in the real world so we printed black and white posters the same day and, organically, our message of mourning spread all over town. The STIB tagline #itsallofus suddenly took on a whole new meaning. To us it seemed the right thing to do and we were very aware at every stage of listening to the conversations that people were having, and taking our lead from them.

The reach of the campaign spread internationally, with public transport systems all over the world joining us in sharing the symbol – something that we couldn’t have envisaged at the start of our work and something that simply happened because it was an authentic reaction to a sad situation.

The ultimate lesson we learned from this activity? Whatever you do, honesty must remain at the heart of it. Don’t think like a brand – think like a human being. Ask yourself if you have a right to take part in the conversation and if the honest answer from yourself, your team, your customers is yes, then act with honesty. Pick a strategy that feels authentic and always try to be on the side of your customers. It can help you to get through difficult times, as a brand, a business and a community of people - and may even make you stronger.