Every organisation is vulnerable to public relations crises, and the days when it was possible to play them down and let the fuss blow over are behind us. Stakeholders won’t forgive a leadership team that fails to lead when it’s most needed; they’ll remember Fukishima, Penn State, Deepwater, Wikileaks … and so will customers.
More than ever before your organisation’s behaviour will be judged as though it was an individual. If your customers see you flinch from responsibility, bury your head in the sand or make irrelevant defensive comments, you’ll have your work cut out to recover their goodwill and respect.
So how should you behave in a crisis? Rather than bandy about abstractions, here are some more helpful tips to make some concrete suggestions in times of crisis:
1. React Swiftly
Monitor what is happening with your company’s assets, human and otherwise. When a crisis erupts, you need a communications expert either on your team or on speed dial. In the digital age, all it takes is for one of your employees to post something racist to the company message board or Facebook page, or a minor incident at an outlying franchise to be mishandled.
Information moves incredibly fast now; you need someone who’s on top of the situation as it develops, not the next day. A series of slurs against your company followed by, ‘…could not be reached for comment,’ is the worst possible story to have told about you. You need to control the story, which means you need the initiative.
2. Address The Problem
Don’t pretend nothing is happening. Accept there’s a problem. Accept it publicly; nothing damages credibility like implausible denial. Conversely we’d all rather talk about our successes. But if someone at your company has made an error, coming clean and addressing the problem lets you go forward with your credibility intact.
3. Empower Your Team
Don’t control everything from the central office. When you trip up when you’re walking along the pavement, you don’t need to stop and have a think about what to do: you catch your balance and keep moving, on instinct. When your company faces a crisis you need a kneejerk response – just make sure it’s the right one. That means teaching your team the right responses and then letting them act.
4. Have A Communications Expert
Have them on speed dial. Have them on a retainer. Have them in the office. Just make sure that you aren’t Facebooking your friends asking, ‘anyone know a good communications person?’ when the crisis is in full swing. You need to be prepared!
When something happens that generates a crisis, it also generates more questions than answers. Be on hand to answer those questions. Get extra people in for social media and phones, and be ready to talk. Additionally, get your story out there into major news channels quickly. 24 hour news means news channels have minutes to fill. If they can’t fill them with news, they’ll get some ‘experts’ out of bed and fill them with speculation. That mud will stick; people will half-remember insinuations made for lack of hard facts, sometimes after they forget the facts!
Similarly, you need to respond where the crisis is happening. Yes, that means having someone on the ground at the franchise or asset where the trouble began to take charge and take questions. But it also means responding into the same channels you saw take it up first. If everyone’s talking about it on Facebook, you don’t want to be working hard to fight the flames on local TV.
6. Establish Monitoring & Notification Systems
Have someone watching the wires. Don’t let the first you hear about a crisis be when you open the door to a local TV crew. Social media means individuals can react far more rapidly than ever before – but organisations can use instant messaging and social media as means to transmit information within the organisation too! Have a go-to email or person for when a crisis hits. Being warned in advance and getting into the race early can be the difference between successful and unsuccessful crisis management.
7. Anticipate Crises
Sometimes you can see which direction trouble might come from. If you’re a company that makes packaged dinners, food poisoning cases are the most likely culprits for plunging your organisation into crisis. Have serious meetings where you try to identify the possible sources of scandal and crisis before they arise. Food poisoning might be foreseeable; but what about the British horsemeat scandal?
Once you’ve identified possible sources of crisis, draft holding statements. Holding statements should be simple enough than any staff member can use them (see ‘Empower Your Team’), but general enough that they can be used for many scenarios. They should all accept responsibility and portray the company in a positive and active light. If you make preparation for crises a part of business as usual, you’ll always be prepared!