Crisis communications: Plan for the unexpected

As CEOs, it is our responsibility to manage the unexpected. My industry labels this as crisis communications or reputation management.

Organizations can successfully plan how to respond to worst-case scenarios, and — in doing so — make us CEOs less reactive to situations where personal emotions and immediate response don’t allow us to think as clearly and rationally as we normally might.

I have counseled numerous companies through crisis situations — everything from illegal immigrants and negativity around organized labor contract negotiations to unfavorable actions of key executives to job-related deaths and injuries, including suicides. With the advent of social media and 24/7 news reporting, we’ve all witnessed stories about companies who have done a poor job (or a good job as in the case of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams) of handling communications during a crisis.

Most of us know we are not immune to a crisis, but few of us are prepared should an unexpected event happen.

When minutes turn into seconds

Warren Buffett said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” This couldn’t be more relevant today. With access to social media, those five minutes are more like seconds.

Be prepared and have a plan

A good plan considers all possible crisis situations the company could encounter — anything from a disgruntled employee who uses social media as a platform to air complaints to a tragic occurrence — and everything in between.

Establish a company policy to guide employees on what to do should any of the potential situations arise. With easy access to a checklist or plan of action, employees can react and respond quickly.

Consider a company code of ethics as an additional guide in the event an employee should have to step in due to unforeseen circumstances.

A company’s first response is to attend to the safety and health of any employee, or any persons involved. Your plan and checklist should identify emergency response issues such as injury, death and how and when to contact family members.

A company’s second response is to dig into the cause of the problem or situation. Get the facts. This should be done with the company’s leadership and its legal and communications counsel.

A third response is to develop a communications strategy and to provide a statement to its public audiences — employees, customers, vendors, the media and whoever else needs to be informed.

Depending on the situation, this may all need to come together in a matter of a few hours — sometimes less. Having a plan will help you get the job done. It will also help if you maintain an updated company fact sheet and have good media relationships already in place.

In all cases, a company should determine at least two senior company representatives and arm them with facts about the situation and comments of how the company is responding to the situation. This doesn’t mean that they have to have all the answers, but it does mean they are available, responsive and working openly and honestly with everyone.

It is important to approach a crisis situation with genuine concern and the facts. Remember: The world is watching.

 

Kelly Borth is CEO and chief strategy officer for GREENCREST, a 25-year-old brand development, strategic and interactive marketing and public relations firm that turns market players into industry leaders™. Kelly is one of 35 certified brand strategists in North America and works with companies to establish brands and build brand value for their businesses.