Responsible brand stewardship and the many ways it can be impacted positively and negatively are top of mind for C-levels in organizations of all sizes, vertical markets and locations. Its criticality, in fact, becomes acute when bad things happen and become public knowledge. Bad news tends to go viral fast, and the consequences of not handling it in the best way possible can be swift and catastrophic.
What has surprised our agency is the preponderance of organizations that lack preparedness for managing a crisis that goes public. The reality is that learning as you go is fraught with peril. Plus, obtaining the services of public relations crisis management experts once the animals have escaped the barn is no substitute for being prepared by having a plan in place that can be forcefully and effectively executed whatever comes your way. This is where public relations crisis management professional assistance is invaluable, before and after an incident.
What follows are some guidelines to consider when evaluating if you and your public relations capabilities are ready for anything:
When Things Go Bad
Let’s start with the basics. So, what could go wrong? To name a few important scenarios:
- Hackers successfully breach corporate and/or customer confidential information.
- Product or service liabilities are exposed.
- Fraudulent sales and marketing practices become the subject of litigation.
- Executive personal misbehavior makes headlines.
- Social media is flooded with customer complaints
What we have recommended to our clients is a three-pronged, holistic approach to proper crisis management. It addresses challenges before, during and after an incident, with a focus on protecting against damage to a specific brand and, by extension, the overall corporate reputation.
For those in IT, the three buckets for crisis management will look familiar:
Each point could be the subject of a lengthy article. While not complicated, it is essential that all of the elements of a crisis management plan be aligned and ready for activation. The plan should be as exhaustive as possible — the cliché “leave no stone unturned” is definitely appropriate.
It may seem obvious, but the steps to maximize being safe and minimize being sorry in terms of public relations preparedness are straightforward.
Development of a plan starts with a few essential items. The first is to identify types of crises, followed by matching people and processes to these scenarios so everyone knows who has expertise and tools and will be responsible and accountable. What naturally flows next is the creation of procedures, support materials, scenario simulations and communications and media training.
The key to preparedness today is also having social media monitoring and engagement strategies and tactics ready for activation. This means monitoring the activities of malcontents and using pre-defined advocates and thought leaders who can rapidly provide content that refutes false claims and buttresses known facts.
In addition, it is not just customers whose actions must have constant scrutiny. Indeed, it is an entity’s entire set of stakeholders whose attitudes and actions need to be attended to, including what issues are red-line issues for them and how they can be mitigated should they become volatile.
If you do not have a 24/7 contact center for concerned customers (for calls and chat) and a frequently updated presence on social media, you cannot respond the way concerned customers and stakeholders expect you to. This is equally true for having public relations and corporate communications people available to the media at all times.
We live in a globally connected 24/7/365 world, and any external audience seeking information should not hear, “Our business hours are XXX. Please contact us at that time if you wish to speak with somebody.”
Template scripts for various scenarios should be available to externally facing people and customized based on incident-specific developments.
Avoid post-traumatic stress syndrome. Do a comprehensive post-mortem and learn from your experiences. Again, a plan is required. It should have various options and the associated risks and rewards on how to efficiently and effectively restore brand, personal and corporate reputations. Considerations here include aggressive use of social media and employing such practices as reverse search engine optimization to bump negative coverage as far back on search lists as possible.
One of the first rules of successful crisis management is that responsiveness is paramount. One need look no further than the daily headlines about data breaches and how long it took those breached to come clean to see that time really is of the essence and transparency is preferable to obfuscation.
Forgiveness can be granted and trust restored when people feel your organization has been honest and accessible, accepting responsibility for mistakes and outlining steps that are being taken to do better. It is a classic mistake in business to think that hiding and waiting for a crisis to blow over is the path to risk mitigation. Recent history proves otherwise.
The bottom line for your bottom line is to prepare and respond quickly and in a trustworthy manner — as demonstrated by recent, well-publicized crisis situations. Risk management during publicly known crises can be extremely effective. The reverse is also true. When it comes to having or not having a holistic, executable crisis management plan, “they who hesitate are lost.”
This article first appeared in Forbes.