Damage Control: Private Planning for Public Crises
By Penny Davis
Whoever said there’s no such thing as bad publicity never sat on the ugly end of pointed queries from a journalist or had full comprehension of the swift scorched-earth wrath a social media firestorm can reap on a reputation.
Unlike a common business problem or challenge, a serious legal issue or crisis poses discernible risks to your organization’s reputation, financial wellness or business survival — or maybe all three.
Whether it’s a natural disaster, customer backlash or a bad social post, a potential crisis is only a few steps — or perhaps missteps — away. And what often follows is an onslaught of media cameras showing up at the CEO’s office, your organization trending on social platforms (and not for good reasons) on social media or your brand flashing above the digital fold of every daily newspaper in your region or even nationwide.
When you’ve identified a crisis, the first step toward recovery is to confront the problem. We tell our clients they can’t fix a problem until they face it — which takes courage, honesty and humility. It’s not easy. Confronting a problem goes against human instincts to deny, minimize, blame or hide. But if you face the situation rather than turn away from it, you’ll earn the trust and respect of your employees, clients, stakeholders and the public.
However, when you’re in the throes of a crisis, you likely won’t have time to do anything other than react to the situation and respond to inquiries. Much later down the road, you’ll have to offer a resolution.
Many startups and small companies are not well-equipped to handle such issues, and a knee-jerk reaction may have disastrous consequences in the long run.
Public relations firms, on the other hand (or other knee, as the case may be), are better experienced and specially trained to handle and prevent crisis-like situations. A good PR agency is well-equipped to swiftly assess the situation and provide a proper action plan to implement so that maximum damage control can be achieved in minimum time.
So, if you have an agency on retainer and have been utilizing it for your marketing or public relations strategy, BONUS! Those professionals are already familiar with your organization’s leadership, strategic direction, mission and vision, products or services, stakeholders, and media outlets. They are well-positioned to jump in, evaluate the situation and provide counsel for responding.
As Effie Trinket is known for saying in the sci-fi dystopian adventure franchise “The Hunger Games”: And may the odds be ever in your favor.
So, may the odds be in your favor that your organization never has to deal with a crisis. But if it does, here are three points to consider:
Don’t pray for the situation to blow over or the news cycle to run its course. That allows the media and others to form the story, and people will immediately assume guilt or make their own suppositions if they don’t hear from you.
- Address the situation immediately.
- Speak with facts and genuine sincerity. This is the time to show your organization’s values. How you respond will impact your credibility and ability to recover.
- Acknowledge people’s concerns and questions, and respond to the right conversations.
Think before you speak
The flip side of taking responsibility and being transparent is that everything you say can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion — and possibly in a court of law if the crisis results in legal action.
- Do not provide overly emotional or frenzied responses.
- Communicate all relevant, confirmed details.
- When asked to comment, never reply with “no comment.” Even if you’re still assessing a situation, simply say that.
- Freeze all external communication until you can assess what’s going on. That includes social media posts, digital ads and emails.
- Be the adult in the room. Don’t engage in public debate, point fingers or throw anyone under a bus.
Offer a resolution
At some point you will have to offer a resolution. Depending on the size and scope of the crisis, it could be within days or even years.
- Cleary explain what happened and how.
- Recognize when operational improvements are necessary and be transparent about how you’re solving the situation.
- In the meantime, be sure that the first external communication following the crisis is a well-thought-out response that resonates with your consumers.
Of course, there are many nuances to a crisis, and M3 Group has a team of experienced crisis communicators ready to jump in and guide you through or get ahead of the curve and develop a crisis communications plan. Contact us today to find out how our experienced minds can help you avoid tomorrow’s headaches.