They are the calls and texts every member of the C-suite dreads: an employee is caught lying about product safety. A bad customer service experience is going viral on social media. Severe weather wipes out a business location.
It isn’t a question of “if” your business will face a crisis but “when.” Are you ready? Responding with the right tone and timing can be the difference between success and failure. Consider these five steps for successful crisis communication.
1. Identify areas of risk
Don’t wait for trouble; plan for it. Make a list of the things that could go wrong. For example:
- Do employees know what they can and can’t share on social media?
- Is there a process in place to provide oversight of your leadership team?
- Do you use a vendor with a reputation for lowering costs by cutting corners?
Start broad, then narrow your focus to the risks with the greatest chance of happening. Arrange them by category (e.g. operations, HR, sales, etc.). Talk with the people in charge of each area. Learn what processes are in place to prevent and resolve problems. If the proper procedures are missing or lacking, work together to address the situation BEFORE a public problem occurs.
2. Launch a response team
When a crisis develops, you will only have a few hours to gather the facts, assess the situation, determine the appropriate response, develop messaging, secure approval from leadership (plus legal counsel) and then communicate to reporters and the public.
That’s a long road to travel in a short time. Give yourself a running start by designating, in advance, a response team that is authorized to make and implement decisions on the spot. Your team should include a representative from:
- Senior leadership
- Human relations
- Public relations at your agency of record
The expectation for this group is 24/7 availability and quick decisions. Share cell numbers with everyone in the group, then set the guidelines defining what this group can handle on its own as well as the triggers that will require input from senior leadership.
3. Prepare background statements
Public perception is painted with a broad stroke and a general disregard for complexity. Help reporters get the facts straight by preparing concise summaries that explain the areas of your organization most susceptible to confusion.
Ownership and organizational details, company and industry descriptions, policies designed to protect employees or prevent discrimination as well as the different responsibilities of francisors and franchisees are a few examples of business details that could be written and reviewed in advance. Combine them into one fact sheet and share it with everyone on the response team.
4. Monitor constantly
Social media. News websites. Blogs. They can all provide the first warning that a crisis is coming. Make sure your team (or your advertising agency) has the proper keyword phrases and monitoring in place to detect and assess potential problems when they’re first posted.
Good monitoring can give you a valuable headstart. Use the time to mobilize your team, alert leadership and potentially mitigate the problem before it becomes a public story.
5. Respond quickly
The more scandalous the situation, the greater the odds a national powerhouse like the Huffington Post, CNN or Buzzfeed will repost the first story written by a local reporter (not the follow-up pieces – just the first story). At that moment, a regional situation may be seen by millions around the world.
Ignoring a reporter’s request for comment won’t kill a story. It simply means it will run without anything from you that could start diffusing the crisis. Your response doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does need to be prompt and should include the following:
- Empathy for the people directly affected.
- Pledge to investigate the situation and, if the claims prove to be true, take the necessary steps to avoid a similar situation in the future.
- Reinforce commitment to your company’s mission (for example, “to deliver the best burger with the best service for our guests.”).
Make sure the tone is genuine and honest. And then be ready to back it up with action.
Resolving a PR crisis doesn’t end with these five steps. However, they will help you mitigate the problem and start moving down the path to recovery.