A Field Guide to Reactive Communications


Communications — aka, that fuzzy line between PR and marketing — tends to come in one of two flavors: proactive and reactive.

Ideally, you’re communicating proactively most of the time. Being able to do so means that you’re guiding the conversations with your audience. It also means that you’re probably doing a good job of anticipating their needs, and that your interactions are well planned.

Of course, there are bound to be situations in which you must react. Those happen to come in several varieties, and they often don’t leave you with much time to plan. Some people would call this crisis communications. I like to call it reactive communications — feels a lot less panicky, right?

So I’ve put together a field guide of some common reactive communication situations, ranging from minor issues to red-alert-full-blown crisis (see, doesn’t that word feel awful?), complete with ideas for handling them as gracefully as possible.

Reactive Communication #1: The unhappy customer

First off, let me just say that this is something you should expect. No matter what business you’re in, no matter what your organization does, you will have an unhappy customer someday. Knowing that, you should be proactive about being reactive, and plan how you’re going to deal with it before it happens.

Did the customer post a complaint on social media? Don’t you dare delete it! Use it as an opportunity to turn things around, so followers can see how dedicated you are to customer satisfaction. Remain professional in your response — apologize, don’t make excuses, and if you can, publicly offer to make it up to them.

Did the customer write you a personal email or letter? Don’t ignore it. Just because it’s private now doesn’t mean it won’t be made public down the road. Do what you can to fix it, and if you end up with a positive outcome, ask if you can share their story.


Reactive Communication #2: Your competitor had a great idea

Step #1: Don’t copy your competitor. It’ll make you look silly.

Step #2: Remind yourself — and if necessary, your customers — what makes you better than your competitor. Examples: more selection, better service, better quality, more creativity/humanity.

Step #3: Come up with your own great idea.

Reactive Communication #3: Everything is under control

Say your organization discovers a major data security vulnerability, but you know your staff members have worked like crazy to make sure you’re not impacted. You should definitely take a moment to tell your user community that everything is cool.

If the vulnerability is widespread, news about it can make its way across major media outlets. Before you know it, people are clamoring for reassurance that their information is safe.

Reassurance is reassuring. (Total knowledge bomb, right?) My point is, don’t underestimate the value of telling your customers you’re on top of a situation, even if they’re not asking about it yet.


Reactive Communication #4: Putting your foot in your mouth

Did you accidentally type an expletive in your last social media post? Refer to a customer by their not-so-nice nickname in a document that went public? Make a marketing move with questionable taste?

Hopefully not, but if so…

Step #1: Apologize. And none of that insincere, “we’re sorry if you took it wrong” junk. Just, “we’re sorry.”

Step #2: Explain why it happened. If we use the examples above, “we were careless,” “we were disrespectful,” and “we were insensitive.” Whatever the truth is, own up to it.

Step #3: Describe how you’re going to make it right, if you can. Then (and perhaps more importantly), describe how you’re going to keep it from happening again — “we’re going to ask an additional staff member to double-check social media posts before publishing in the future,” “we’re going to reprimand the individual(s) who thought this was okay,” “we’re going to hold some focus groups and do some training on cultural sensitivity.”

Step #4: Apologize. Again.

Reactive Communication #5: The sky is falling, but we’re not sure about the size of the pieces, or how fast, so we’re just not saying anything

If a crisis belongs to you — meaning you’re the one responsible for clearing it up — you might think that reporting anything less than the whole story would make you look incompetent. But you do NOT need all the information about why something is happening in order to communicate with your audience about the fact that it is, indeed, happening.

If your audience already knows about an issue (for instance, if your 24/7 service is experiencing an outage, or your product didn’t arrive as scheduled), partial information is better than nothing. Give them the information you have, and let them know that you’re investigating ways to solve the problem. Then close by telling them when they can expect further updates — and make sure you deliver on that later update!

Will you get squawk-back? Of course. But it’ll be far less than if you offered nothing but radio silence.


Do you have other reactive communications scenarios you’d like to see addressed in a later post? Let me know in the comments!


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