Top 5 tips: When crisis hits

No one can plan when a crisis happens, but every business should have a plan for handling crises. Emergencies can be natural or human in origin; your business may be interrupted because of a flood or other disaster, or you could be faced with negative news because of an employee’s or your own mistake. A public relations professional can help develop a crisis communications plan that will be flexible enough to cover contingencies in notifying your stakeholders such as employees, shareholders, customers, regulatory agencies and elected officials. A solid crisis communications plan will help protect your company’s priceless brand and reputation and help you to communicate quickly, working with stakeholders and media to minimize any potential negative impacts, rumors or incorrect information.

1. Have a plan, follow it and keep it updated: A good crisis communications plan need not be lengthy. It should be available electronically or online if the company has a secure employee/intranet site, in all managers’ offices, and they should have a copy to keep at home. People who have gone through natural disasters when power is lost for significant periods testify to the value of hard copies. The plan needs to include essential information such as:

  • Chain of command and notification tree, including employees and key stakeholders
  • Home and mobile phone numbers of managers and key employees
  • Emergency and regulatory agency contact information
  • List of duties and job titles fulfilling them, which should include a command structure designating the person in charge (owner, president, CEO or onsite manager), media relations, facility protection/security, financial protection and tracking, employee/staffing of roles, customer relations and other key roles relevant to your company
  • Company backgrounder and fact sheets – in case your website goes down
  • Media contact information and media policy, including clearance of news releases and designation of spokesperson
  • Online/social media policy encompassing use of website and social media such as Facebook and Twitter
  • Recovery steps and evaluation

2. Be prepared to move quickly: Hold mock disaster drills at least annually with different scenarios each time. Going through a mock exercise for a few hours can pay big dividends when a real crisis occurs. The rise of online media has created a nonstop news cycle. Organizations need to be quick to issue statements that are as concise and complete as possible with information available at the time. Frequent updates are important and can be facilitated by judicious use of social media. Face the problem and always tell the truth. Look into other similar crises and how they were handled. Emphasize perspective by balancing bad news with positive actions.

3. Don’t fight the media; they set the agenda: Blaming the media is pointless. If inaccuracies have been disseminated, contact the media to request corrections. You also have powerful online tools using your website, blogs and social sites to tell your story. Consider empowering employees to do this, as well. Chances are they’ll do it anyway, and if you give them facts, the viral message coming from people closely associated to the crisis will have credibility and impact.

4. Use one spokesperson: This may seem contradictory to the idea of allowing your employees to blog and comment about the company on social media sites, but when it comes to official statements, the one-spokesperson policy is best. That person should be on the company’s website, in front of the camera for interviews and quoted in news releases. That individual usually is the owner, president or CEO. This leader has the title, credibility and expertise to best offer an authentic and believable representation of the company’s story and, ultimately, to protect its reputation. It’s also best for all of the stakeholders, including the media, to have the consistency of one primary spokesperson during the crisis.

5. Remember recovery: After the crisis is over, don’t forget to thank all of those who have worked during the difficult circumstances of an unfortunate incident. Make any adjustments necessary to prevent anything preventable and to mitigate damage in the future. Announce those changes publicly; it’s important for your stakeholders to know what the company has learned from the experience. Finally, evaluate your performance with your employees – and put the crisis behind you. Many companies and brands, such as Tylenol, have weathered crises and come back stronger than ever as a result of solid crisis communications.

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