Crisis-managementImagine this. You’re the CEO for a company whose primary business is security. You turn on the TV and see news of a mass shooting.   Soon you receive a phone call telling you that one of your employees was the shooter. Think it can’t happen to you?   It can and it did happen.

With regularity we hear of businesses facing unforeseen crises: Chipotle, Malaysian Airlines, Blue Bell Ice Cream, Applebee’s, Volkswagen to name a few recently. How brands handle crisis management can often mean the difference between a short-term business interruption and a prolonged decline in company value, revenue and market share. In extreme cases it may even be the difference between the life and death of the company. Every business is vulnerable, that’s why every business, regardless of size, needs to be prepared.

Effective crisis management requires focus on three areas: Plan, People, and Communications.  Here’s what you need to do.

  1. Have a plan in place. The Boy Scout’s motto, Be Prepared, had it right when it comes to crisis management. Preparation is key to handling any crisis the right way. In today’s social media driven world, even a small story can go viral in a flash. When a crisis happens you won’t have the luxury of time to put together a crisis management plan. Plus, when crisis hits emotions are likely to be running high and objectivity may be affected. That’s not the time to start thinking about your plan.  Go through your “what if “ scenarios now. Don’t wait until crisis strikes before thinking about what to do and what to say.
  1. Have your crisis management team in place. Your team will usually include the CEO, legal counsel, your Communications or PR leadership and/or outside agency, and potentially subject matter experts for the various areas of your business.
Know who your spokesperson will be. You’ll want a single designated spokesperson when a crisis occurs. Depending on the severity and nature of the crisis you may have different designated spokespeople. Regardless of who the spokesperson is, be sure that he/she has the skills to handle the job and has been properly trained. Some people are gifted orators with large audiences and a prepared speech, but get defensive or tongue-tied when being drilled by an aggressive reporter.

Ensure that your spokesperson has the right training to handle the media. Crisis management communication is different than typical PR.   As Jonathan Bernstein says it in The 10 Steps of Crisis Communication, “ Proactive PR focuses on promoting your organization. Crisis communication focuses on preserving your organization.”

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate. What, when and how you communicate will determine whether you’re managing the crisis or the crisis is managing you.
Keep your employees informed. Make sure your employees know that only the designated spokesperson speaks for the company and ensure they know where to refer questions and inquiries.  In the event of a crisis your employees are going to be feeling the same heat as your senior management team – maybe even more for front line employees handling customer complaints.   That heat can become destructive to morale if employees don’t know what’s happening and they learn the story from their friends, family or the media.   Handling a crisis the right way is an opportunity to reinforce employee pride and actually strengthen company loyalty.

Let your customers, business partners, investors and suppliers know.   As with your employees, you don’t want these parties to learn of your crisis through the media. Be honest and transparent in your communications. Many companies have made mistakes by either denying an issue, ignoring it in the hope that it will just go away or becoming defensive in response. These tactics invariably backfire.   A crisis is the time to step up, with courage, and admit that an issue has occurred, take responsibility for it and be open about what you’re doing about it. Most people are remarkably forgiving when a company says, “ We made a mistake which we sincerely regret. Here’s what we’re doing to fix it.”

Make social media your friend, not your nemesis.  Use social media to get your message out early and often, promptly respond to questions and comments, and stay out ahead of the story.   Proactively communicating through social media will enable you to better control the story, rather than trying to react to address negative news and comments.

Hopefully, you’ll never need to deploy your crisis management plan, but following the steps outlined above will serve you and your brand well if a crisis occurs.

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