The Three Phases of a Business Crisis: What You Need to Know
Take it from businesses as diverse as Volkswagon, Chipotle, Foster Farms and Samsung – a PR crisis can hit anyone, anytime and for any reason. But you don’t have to be a major corporate entity to need a crisis plan. Quite simply, such a plan helps protect your company’s brand as well as the interests of employees, customers and other stakeholders. A good crisis plan spells out how to respond to media inquiries as well as questions from customers and investors.
Handling the three phases of a crisis
A crisis communication plan covers the gamut of an incident: pre-crisis, mid-crisis and post-crisis. Each scenario calls for a unique tactical plan.
If you could accurately predict when and how a crisis would occur, you wouldn’t need a crisis plan. However, circumstances will always get the better of your company, so you should have a plan in place to be ready to respond to an attack on your brand – not to mention that it’s easier to formulate and train on a crisis plan before the crisis hits.
Know where vulnerability exists
It’s not pleasant to think about your company’s vulnerabilities or shortcomings, but knowing them helps you prepare for the worst. Brainstorm with people across your organization; chances are you’ll hear things about your company you never knew.
Then organize the vulnerabilities according to their severity and the possibility of prevention.
Choose your battles
Nobody likes a negative Yelp, tweet or Facebook message, but an undesirable comment in and of itself is not necessarily a crisis worthy of contacting the media. A PR specialist like Carter & Co. can help you formulate responses to “everyday” problems like negative notices. When a true PR crisis should arise – one that may have a long-term impact on the viability of your brand, its profits or employee security– you can focus your attention on dealing with those implications.
Find the optimal vehicle for delivery of your response
Depending on the size and location of your company, your crisis plan should identify the optimal communication channels should a crisis occur. A press conference at your worksite isn’t always the best idea. Likewise, if you know your audience primarily visits Facebook, posting your information on Twitter may not be as effective.
Some team leaders have an affinity for speaking in public; others don’t. You don’t need to necessarily “audition” spokespeople, but do identify those managers in your organization who have good verbal skills, can remain cool under pressure and, most importantly, know how to stay on topic. Once the crisis management team is chosen… be sure to practice, practice, and practice. Repetition is the mother of skill.
Prepare holding statements
Along with predetermined spokespeople, having prepared (“holding”) statements will allow you to publically respond immediately while still taking the time to craft the appropriate formal response. Holding statements are a vital part of your crisis communications plan, particularly if the problem occurs after hours or when other spokespeople are not available.
Draft your prepared statements and share them with your spokespeople. Keep these statements short andto the point. They are meant to provide an immediate first response, one you may elaborate on later.
Train and keep training
Though many employees pride themselves on their social media skills, handling a PR crisis takes a different kind of talent. Train your staff on social and traditional media crises communication, so that no important statement is “lost in the translation.” When new people join your company, train them as well.
From a faulty product to a site disaster, a crisis simulation can help you prepare for the real thing. Involve all stakeholders in this “fire drill.” Carter & Co. is experienced at conducting crisis simulations and the clients have found the training invaluable.
Keep an eye online
Is a potential PR crisis bubbling under the surface? Social media tools such as tweets, comments and “likes” can help you gauge public sentiment. Are customers or employees revealing vulnerabilities or possible failures? Are complaints in a certain area starting to be shared? Pre-emptive strategies can help you avoid a crisis all together. Carter & Co. handles reputation management for clients who understand brand management as a circular approach. Build, protect and defend the brand!
The hammer has come down! Your company is in the midst of a PR crisis, and now communication moves to the forefront. Immediately notify your Crisis Management Firm. Next, call your legal department and notify them of the crisis. The Crisis Management Firm and the Legal Department will work together to lead your company through the times ahead.
At this point, the most important thing to remember is to stay calm. The worst decision you can make is to respond hastily with unprepared messaging that could easily be misinterpreted. If reporters call, tell them you’ll call them back in a few minutes – then collect your statements and your thoughts. Holding statements are designed for this moment.
Remember your internal audience. In your zeal to address the press and other inquiries, don’t overlook your employees and stakeholders, who may similarly be in the dark about the crisis at hand. When people are aware of the facts internally, they can become ambassadors for your crisis management efforts. There are specific tactics that are employed to help communicate with and lead the internal team. Your crisis communications plan should specifically state the approved processes for notification of employees and stakeholders. Each audience is handled differently. Avoid communicating by means of email or written statements until the crisis team has developed a formal response.
How to respond
Your pre-crisis preparation comes in handy now!
When a crisis hits, pull out your predesigned checklist. Stop all marketing and advertising until the dust settles, and begin distributing your prepared and approved statements as appropriate. Contact your media monitoring representative and put them on alert. Special alerts and monitoring criteria needs to be created specifically around the crisis. This is a 24/7 monitoring effort until the initial media frenzy is quelled.
Focus your initial efforts of managing public perception by addressing the crisis where the fire is happening. For example, If the crisis is happening on Twitter, focus on Twitter. Link to a published statement there, then share the message elsewhere.
Don’t use the silent treatment
Silence in the face of a developing crisis is not your friend. People will think you have something to hide; or will automatically assume the worst about the crisis or about your business.
When sharing information, follow a few tactics:
Provide a place to vent.
Unhappy customers or other stakeholders are likely to take to social media to vent. Let them! It is actually an opportunity for you to publicly respond. Be very cautious about deleting negative posts. If you haven’t already done so, contact your crisis management firm and seek their advice. Always ask your communications expert for feedback before proceeding with a response to negative feedback. Never respond in a negative or defensive posture. Remember that the customer is always right. Same goes for public perception… until you earn their positive perception back.
Use plain English.
Nothing riles people like vague comments such as “mistakes were made.” Own up to the crisis, and explain it in an active-voice, non-technical way.
If your plan includes a public apology, make it believable. An example of what *not* to say is, “we apologize *if* we have inconvenienced our customers.” If the problem has inconvenienced customers, the “if” no longer applies – it has happened! Own the blame with a statement that might read, “We’re very sorry *that* the issue with our product caused inconvenience, and we’re working right now to fix this problem.” And never integrate a sales pitch into an apology – people are quick to recognize such a shallow tactic.
Adapt existing communication for multiple channels.
A good message will resonate in various platforms. Nail down the message first, then customize it to the varying style of the channels, whether it’s an in-depth statement on Facebook, a quick tweet on Twitter, or a sharable video on YouTube.
Take the crisis offline.
Not every crisis is best handled online, particularly if there’s risk of misinterpretation. Ask your crisis communications expert whether more traditional methods, like a formal press conference, may be a more appropriate way to control the message.
Monitor impact. Plan, Do, Measure, Repeat.
Is the strategy working? Monitor responses from online and offline sources, and that will help determine what is working best. Be prepared to edit and adjust as needed should you find a gap or unintended consequence in your plan – a helpful bit of knowledge for the future.
THE MEDIA IS NOT YOUR ENEMY.
But they are professionals. Get the professional help you need to work with them. It’s your story, make sure you’re the one telling it.
Crisis management doesn’t end after the crisis has been addressed. Post-crisis communications provide benefits for customers, stakeholders and press alike, and can contribute to ongoing engagement and brand loyalty. In cases of non-employee related violence in the workplace, it can be very healing to have the communications continue.
Follow words with action.
A good statement is a good start, but people expect you to back your words with action. Tell the public how you intend to remediate the problem; you can also take steps to reinforce your message with some public gesture of goodwill. This is your opportunity to turn an obstacle into an opportunity. If planned well, your brand can not only survive a crisis, but can come out stronger on the other side.
Regularly review the response plan.
A crisis communications plan is a living document that needs to be reviewed, rehearsed and updated as conditions in your company evolve. Learn from the mistakes and successes of your recently deployed crisis plan to prepare for any future incident. Watch how other companies manage crises. What do you like? What do you dislike? Engage your team in these discussions and incorporate this into your overall strategy going forward.
Share the updated plan.
Often it’s easy to work with a select group on a policy update, but forget to share it with all your employees. Use your company’s internal network to keep everyone apprised of changes in your crisis communications plan, and back that with necessary training.
As well, keep hard copies of your plan on hand, as you can never predict when your Internet fails.
Prep and Planning Make the Difference
Crises can happen to anyone—including you.
But with a comprehensive pre-crisis, mid-crisis and post-crisis plan, you can add a measure of confidence by knowing you are prepared. A good plan starts with the new hire packet, and never ends.
When you have the right tools in place, your brand won’t just survive – it’ll thrive.