What clickbait can teach us about crafting better crisis comms

"[Incident] Status Update or Statement From Our [Senior Exec Title]" is the standard for most crisis comms headlines. However, this stiff, detached prose isn't doing the comms department any favours, explains The Drill's Gerry McCusker.

UK football writers can teach us a lot about crisis communications.

More accurately, the sub-editors who pen their clickbait-style stories (speculative and informative) can.

As an avid football fan, I’ve noticed a new editorial convention assert itself as a staple of online sports reports. You’ve surely seen the kind of thing: “3 things we learned…”, “5 fast facts from…” and “7 surprises surrounding…”.

Essentially, what these new editorial conventions are acknowledging is the short attention span of online information consumers, as well as the role of clickbait titles in instantly drawing eyeballs and clicks to pages. It’s about competing for story relevance.

If we believe claims that around 80% of readers never make it past the headline, communicators have a heap of work to do to craft crisis messages that get anything more than a passing glance. We need to acknowledge and accept the short attention span of online information consumers and the fact that, currently, clickbait often draws reader clicks to pages.

Stiff, detached prose

In online crisis communications, precious few brands actually deploy these new online editorial conventions. Instead, they still write detached corporate prose, things like:

<Incident> Status Update or Statement From Our <Senior Exec Title>.

Quick question: If you were ‘searching’ crisis-critical information, would any of the above get your attention? Or would you be drawn to some of the following:

Three Factors That Caused The <insert crisis event>

Five Tips To Protect Your Family From <insert crisis event> or

Seven Ways To Survive The <insert crisis event>?

You see, non-compelling composition causes issues-related irrelevance. Or, shit headlines don’t sell shit.

In modern crisis management, three of the key things (see what I did there?) clients can do to get a better share of crisis narrative is to review how they write, and improve how they write.

Write for search and social, as well as for their stakeholders. Any brand that wants a bigger share of voice (or online presence) should be adopting these new writing conventions anyhow, in peace time, as well as war time.

So, in the spirit of this new style, here are three things we learned to help write better crisis comms messages:

1. Intriguing, compelling and personal crisis headlines

Landing page and conversion marketing platform Unbounce lauds the use of benefits-driven headlines designed to provide a compelling – yet incomplete – taster of what to expect in the full article.

Writing techniques such as “3 Crazy Ways To…” or “Five Guaranteed Tips For…” appeal because they promise an end-result with a prescriptive number of instructions.

Oddly, odd numbers are perceived as being more authentic than even numbers. And MarketingProfs completed an A/B testing study to show that benefits-driven headlines increased conversion rates by 28%.

2. Emotion speaks directly to those most affected

Brands and businesses often write in a counter-intuitive way amid crises. Just when their audiences crave for connection, empathy and reassurance, the tone of corporate communications defaults to clipped, detached and sanitised.

Let’s not forget that to social and digital media users, the online media are personal. They often thrive on one-to-one exchanges that make the end-user feel important and valued. Don’t forget that you’re speaking to real people, balls of complex emotions and feelings.

Most crisis managers acclaim the use of emotion when it infuses CEO speeches in a crisis, yet the emotional or personal quotient is missing when it comes to crisis status updates.

3. Checks and lists

Co-Schedule (a marketing calendarisation consultancy) claims:

Listed items are routinely shared between 100-1,000 times. Lists get particularly good traction on Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter.

Despite this, they make up less than 5% of all the written content currently created.

Get this, guys: people in crises are time-poor and highly stressed. They need help to make life-saving decisions, so use a list to make it easy for them to follow your instructions.

As a bonus, you can also use eye-catching images to turn their heads.

Better controlling the crisis narrative

Modern crisis communications are all about informing and influencing the crisis narrative online and offline; but to inform you have to first create awareness and grab attention.

The challenge is to learn, among things, the online writing tips and techniques to optimise messages so they get visibility, traction and shares amid the narrative snowstorm of any crisis situation.

Gerry McCusker is a PR disaster specialist and founder of SaaS crisis simulation training portal, The Drill.


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