Paid media – external marketing efforts that involve paid placement of ads or content targeted by geography, demographics, interests or actions – is an important part of any company’s overall communications strategy. It can include sponsored content, search, display or video ads, print, radio, sponsorship, influencer marketing, and more.

But what role should paid media play during a crisis?

The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer shows most of the public turns to online sources (search, social media feeds and news applications) for information and discussion. This is especially true in the beginning stages of a crisis, whether it’s a reputational issue related to executive misconduct, or an operational disaster such as an on-site fatality. During this phase, many businesses’ first reaction is to withdraw from the public space and limit external communications. It may seem counterintuitive to advertise since it may open your brand to become a further target for critics. But that’s not always the case. 

Here are some best practices for how paid media can support an organization’s crisis communications:

  1. Include paid media in crisis communications planning.

Paid media considerations should be infused throughout a company’s crisis communications planning process. Paid media accounts should already be set up and funded so the team can hit the ground running without losing critical time. An organization’s crisis plan should include all key contacts for paid media and social accounts, guidance on ad/content specs for key platforms, and log-in information to ensure immediate access when a crisis hits.

  1. Assess the need to halt scheduled paid media campaigns.

During a crisis, it’s important to have the ability to react in real-time. Continuing to post unrelated, promotional content can appear insensitive and may result in public and stakeholder backlash, particularly given the broad digital footprint of paid campaigns.

When an issue breaks, one of the first steps should be to review current campaigns in market through an issues management lens. For example, is the company advertising a product ‘fire-sale’ when there are devastating forest fires occurring? If it appears an incident may evolve into a longer-term crisis, be sure to review upcoming advertisements and determine if these should be delayed or cancelled, as well. Some paid media campaigns may be able to continue, if they target a demographic or geographic region unrelated to the crisis. Either way, advertising should always underscore and align with the values that the company’s target audience or customers can continue to relate to.

  1. Consider using paid media to your advantage.

It’s essential to ensure target audiences can find the information they need quickly. By putting the company’s information about the incident in the forefront of the conversation and at the top of search results, employees are better positioned to control the incident narrative. In certain crises, such as data breaches, advertising is often also a preferred route for meeting legal and ethical requirements to notify those directly affected.

Use owned digital channels, like corporate websites, to reach those who need the information and use paid media to amplify it to targeted localized stakeholders. When dealing with regional incidents, geo-target paid media ads around the incident location and key nodes of data traffic based on website analytics. Consider also deploying a Google search campaign, so that your content will be displayed whenever users search for keywords related to a particular issue.

  1. Getting back to business as usual.

On a case-by-case basis, each company will need to carefully evaluate – by considering the nature, sensitivity, severity and traction of an issue – the tipping points when enough time has passed that the crisis is no longer front and center in the public conversation, but before the brand begins fading with stakeholders or becomes indelibly tarnished by the crisis.

Monitoring is a must-have for any crisis response, and the public discussion is critical, especially online. Use this to gauge the pulse of the crisis when strategizing about returning to normal course advertising. If the company’s public image has been severely damaged, additional steps may need to be taken to focus on rebuilding the brand before selling its services as business as usual.

Overall, paid media is a powerful tool for controlling the narrative and message distribution during a crisis. It should be a key part of any company’s crisis communications and business continuity planning, in both reactive (e.g., halting content) and proactive (e.g., geo-targeting ads) postures. By being aware of the different uses of paid media, executives can help to control a crisis – and prevent the company from inadvertently creating a new one.

Elise Steeves is a senior account manager, Crisis & Risk, Edelman Vancouver.
Jessica Fralick is an account manager, Digital Crisis & Risk, Edelman Calgary.