What You Need to Know to Manage a Crisis
Ten Defensive Strategies that Ensure Meaningful, Deliberate Communication
Monday, September 21, 2009
Let’s face it, most companies don’t know what to do when a crisis hits. I should know because I’ve helped dozens of companies manage everything from product recalls to plant explosions and sexual assaults on campus. Yes, you should have a crisis communications plan but even that won’t help much if you don’t have strategies to combat the crisis.
First, do not respond off-the-cuff and in a knee-jerk fashion when something happens. Someone may be saying things about your organization that aren’t true and you may want to lash out. Think it through first. Your ‘crisis’ may actually be an issue that, with proper management, can remain isolated and internal instead of becoming something altogether different.
That being said, you must respond to a crisis. While many claim responding within a business day is acceptable, I disagree. In today’s social media and blog arena, I recommend you respond within the hour. Inactivity says you don’t care, and ‘no comment’ says you are guilty as some may want to think you are.
Every professional communicator knows you will have to address both internal and external audiences. I recently helped a company come up with messages responding to a crisis that resonated with the public and the salespeople on the floor. Everyone associated with the company spoke with the same voice. You will need messages that resonate with your audiences. Think about showing others how important quality is to your company, for example, or how your operations ensure donations are used effectively. If the crisis involves customers, show how you’ve addressed customer concerns in the past—and will continue to do so in the future.
Establish a policy—if you haven’t already—that directs all inquiries—especially ones from the media—to a designated contact. Journalists love to ask hourly employees if they agree with the CEO as they leave the parking lot.
Here are some general defensive strategies you can deploy in a crisis. They are not one-fits-all in nature, so choose carefully.
- Respond as quickly as possible with as much leverage as you can bring to bear. Crisis situations can easily overwhelm a company if you don’t get out in front of them—and stay there.
- Point out existing policies and procedures that were in place to prevent what just occurred. The best offense is a good defense.
- Don’t acknowledge negatives or assign blame. Instead, put a human face on your company or organization by expressing empathy, concern and a willingness to solve the problem to the best of your abilities and resources.
- Refer to your company reputation, years in business and number of customers, for example, to show the crisis is not business-as-usual. If it has never happened before, it may be an isolated incident. Say so.
- Use the media as an ally. Provide a 1-800 number for concerned customers or the public to call. Ask the media to tell your side of the story so others can avoid similar problems. Get a competent experienced media expert—someone with real media and newsroom experience—to advise you.
- Get competent legal advice. Lawyers serve the very useful purpose of determining legal liability in crisis situations.
- Ask past customers and business partners to provide testimonials on your behalf. These can be used to offset other voices that seek to destroy your credibility.
- Put a human face on your company. If it’s serious, the chief executive officer should respond to the media or other parties, not the communications department spokesperson.
- Show transparency. A crisis situation can begin with a rumor in today’s social and media environments. If you don’t know, say so, and then promise to find out. Never lie, mislead, fudge—or worse—speculate.
- Be prepared to respond with a campaign of your own. If the media or a competitor make your company look bad, launch a marketing campaign coupled with a public relations effort (these are dramatically different things) to counter bad public opinion.
Never lose your composure or control in a crisis situation. Respond with a plan, and stick to it. Crisis situations offer an opportunity to exhibit the character and integrity of your organization or company. It may look bad, but tomorrow is another day.
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