The importance of joined-up crisis planning

This week saw a classic crisis situation at RBS – with some important lessons for communicators facing a sudden burst of customer outrage, and associated reputation damage.

In particular, the story highlights why it’s vital to integrate marketing, social media and sales into the crisis plan.

Millions of pounds went missing overnight with 600,000 payments apparently lost because of an IT glitch. 

It is, of course, not the first time RBS has been in IT meltdown. A computer failure in 2012 affected 6.5 million customers and dragged on for weeks. 

So RBS management have had quite a bit of practice. It was no surprise to see their crisis media plan swing into action. It was straight out of the well-established playbook:

  • We know we’ve let our customers down
  • We’ll make sure they don’t lose out financially
  • We take responsibility and, yes, we’re “sorry”
  • We’re working flat out to fix the issue
  • We’ll do everything to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again
  • We’re here to help in the meantime

RBS then attracted criticism for giving itself a seemingly unchallenging timetable (“by Saturday”) to put things right, which was strange as the underlying problem had apparently already been “resolved”. 

But a bigger issue seems to have been a failure of crisis management in the customer service and social media teams.

The @Natwest_Help twitter account alerted customers at 8am about the glitch, encouraging people who may have been affected to call a number or get in touch in other ways.

The phone number given out seems to have been quickly overwhelmed. The twitter account was swamped with critical comment.  This only fuelled customer outrage.

In a strange twist, the @Natwest_Help then sent out a deeply inappropriate tweet encouraging customers to “Give your dad a treat with all the trimmings this #FathersDay”. Even though many had no money to buy their dad this “treat”.

To add insult to injury, some customers reportedly then received a text warning that they may be penalised for being in overdraft.

The lesson? Crisis planning needs to reach across all communications channels – including text and social media.

There seems to have been a particular problem here with automated systems, for texting and tweeting, which can send out absurd marketing content in the middle of a major unfolding news story.

With the high street banks facing an unprecedented challenge to their market position, the big card they have left is trust. You can be trusted with customers’ money, even if they don’t like you very much.

Limiting the reputational damage associated with a crisis has never been more important. But that goes well beyond the response of the corporate press office and senior executives.