How to avoid most brand crises -- and how to survive when one hits

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Tara Carraro, Nestle Waters North America.
Tara Carraro, Nestle Waters North America.

If a truck hauling Nestle bottled water gets in an accident, an alert goes out almost immediately to key people inside Nestle Waters North America, including the corporate communications team. The web-based messaging system, which covers a range of incidents, is one small example of how the marketer tries to get out in front of potentially negative news stories.

"Having an early warning system allows our teams to react with speed, resolve the situation and ensure the safety of our employees, property and the communities in which we operate," says Tara Carraro, Nestle Waters' chief corporate affairs officer.

Being prepared—and giving all employees the tools to pitch in—is one of Carraro's tenets for avoiding brand disasters. She's had plenty experience doing just that, having worked in the communications departments for a range of high-profile companies, including tobacco marketer Philip Morris USA, PepsiCo, Heineken USA and the WWE, whose stars are seemingly always in the news.

Carraro will dispense some of her advice next week during a panel discussion at the Ad Age Survival Summit in Chicago on May 1. We caught up with her to get a preview.

In the last several years, what is the single biggest change in the way companies should respond if they're caught in a negative story, whether it be directly, or even indirectly, related to their brands?

Companies need to respond in an authentic way. They need to balance facts vs. emotions. Too often, they fail to address the real concerns of consumers and other stakeholders. Being human is usually never a bad thing.

What is the biggest mistake you see companies make when trying to respond to a brand crisis?

Not responding quickly enough. There is often an internal paralysis that prevents the company from engaging in the conversation because they haven't planned for a crisis.

What organizational changes should brands make to ensure they can respond quickly, and appropriately to a brand crisis?

Implement an issues and crisis management structure that closely integrates all functions in the company to ensure you have an effective early warning system, the infrastructure to respond and clear delineation of roles and responsibilities. The one thing companies typically miss is a way to engage their employees in the process.

Let's imagine your brand is in the news for a negative reason. How do you decide when, or even if, you should respond?

It is important to first understand the facts. This includes whether the story is focused solely on your brand or whether your brand is being pulled into a larger narrative. After that, rely on your core values to dictate your response. Of course, all the traditional elements of crisis management apply—react quickly, be authentic, monitor the conversation and be prepared to evolve your response.

You spent the earlier part of your career working for a tobacco company—Enemy No. 1, according to some people. What did you learn from that experience? Do you still use that knowledge today?

Every day. I spent 15 years working for Altria and some of its operating companies, and it was the best professional training I could have received. I was very fortunate to be working with some of the best minds out there. While I learned a tremendous amount, there are two lessons I continue to rely on the most today: One, you need to balance emotions vs. facts. Two, in the face of adversity, and particularly with large, organized groups of advocates, seek common ground. It is very rare that solution-oriented NGOs and large corporations can't find something to agree on. Focus on that.

Let's recall your time at WWE, which is full of stars that get plenty of attention. How did you train them on social media?

WWE recognizes that the reputation of their superstars and the reputation of their brand are intertwined. As such, they invest in developing their talent in a number of key areas including how to work with members of the media and how to use social media in an appropriate way to promote the WWE brand and their own individual brands. When I was there, we put new talent recruits through a social media training program to help prepare them for the change from leading a relatively private life to leading a more public life. Once new recruits were more fully developed in terms of their characters and were ready to appear on television, they were put through a more comprehensive media training program, with refresher trainings along the way.

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