Crisis Communication Is Key for Businesses

A playbook for winning a media crisis before it’s too late
by Keith Yaskin

The NFL’s regular season starts each September, but the preparation for battle is a year-round process: There’s free agency, the college draft, mini-camp, organized team activities, training camp and the preseason. Now, imagine the controversy and outrage from fans, sports radio and ESPN’s talking heads if teams walked into stadiums and stood on the sidelines of the first game without preparation or a strategy in hand. What if head coaches looked across the sidelines at opposing teams, sized them up and decided in impromptu fashion how to draw up victory?

This unprepared, let’s-wing-it approach is how most organizations attack crisis communications. The ways that companies and people screw up vary: blowing a big interview on “60 Minutes,” verbally jousting with journalists, physically threatening them and swiping a reporter’s microphone and tossing it into a lake. (Yes, that actually happened!) The difference from football is, the opposing teams are the news media and a cynical public prepared to pounce on the first sniff of a company’s potential misdeeds.

Crises often sneak out of the shadows, and the ensuing negative publicity can sideline companies in a number of ways. The financial consequences vary, but a news media crisis can cost companies millions of dollars in revenue and send stock prices down double digits. Even if businesses ignore interview requests and weather the storm silently behind closed doors until the thunder stops, how can executives truly tap into whether word-of-mouth is spreading the negative news? Not directly hearing criticism doesn’t mean it won’t eventually strangle the bottom line and reputations. From an employee standpoint, a crisis can impact morale and hiring. A recent CareerBuilder survey revealed that 71 percent of U.S. job seekers would not apply for jobs with a company experiencing negative publicity.

Organizations too often contact someone for crisis communications assistance when reporters are already pounding on their front doors and unfavorable stories and posts are flooding social media. And remember, as an airline recently demonstrated, the way companies mishandle a crisis can make a messy situation even uglier.

Businesses can prepare for a media crisis before it pops up by immediately taking the following four steps.

First, assemble a crisis communications team. Consider a mom-and-pop business that had expanded over the decades into something much more, and, one day, is contacted by a freelance writer working for a major online magazine who explains one of the company’s products includes something controversial. The company contacts a public relations firm to determine if and how to respond. While the freelance writer waits for a response, the company learns the PR firm’s fee, signs an agreement, gets the firm up to speed, determines which managers should take part in various discussions, crafts a written response, consults with an attorney, revises the statement and ensures top management signs off on the whole thing. To avoid chaotic situations like this, consider:

  • Who would coordinate news media requests for interviews?
  • Who would then provide those interviews as company spokesperson?
  • Who will back-up these roles if the official spokesperson is traveling overseas when a crisis strikes?
  • How will the organization react promptly if a crisis occurs during holidays, weekends or after regular business hours?
  • Will leaders provide regular updates to employees?
  • Who will monitor social media for discussions about the crisis?
  • Who will communicate the facts to stakeholders such as employees, key clients, investors and the board of directors?
  • Who will ensure everyone providing public statements is using accurate and consistent language?
  • Who will ensure frontline employees will take the proper steps when reporters and angry customers unexpectedly confront them when managers are not on site?
  • Once the team is together, ask, “What are possible crises the company might face in the future? What could possibly go wrong?”
  • If something goes wrong, what are the best ways to reach the business’s most important target audiences: Mainstream media? A specific news outlet? A trade publication? Social media? A prepared statement? A face-to-face interview?
  • Will the company’s attorney be part of the crisis communications team? Lawyers and PR pros often lock horns on how to publicly handle a crisis. One side wants to prevent liability. The other side wants to save reputations. A meeting of the minds now is better than attempting to see eye-to-eye while the storm surrounds the team later and threatens to engulf it.

Second, practice handling media interviews by hiring a media training firm or regularly practicing with colleagues. Think about an organization contacted by a reporter after an incident on its property whose general manager is the only person on staff in a position to talk with the media but is enjoying a vacation several states away. Contacted by his staff, he feels he faces no other choice but to cut his vacation short and return home immediately to attempt to save the day. To ensure a company’s employee roster has depth and is not solely dependent on one person, ask several team leaders to address the following questions:

  • What are key messages and concise quotes and soundbites the company could provide to simply explain the facts of a crisis?
  • How can the organization proactively address misinformation?
  • Is there an opportunity to use the crisis to better educate the public about an issue?
  • What positives might the company share during a negative news story?
  • Would the company be willing to acknowledge it made a mistake?
  • If the business has blundered before in a similar way, is the company also prepared to address problems from the past?
  • Would the organization be willing to offer a straightforward apology?

Third, ensure employees have the information and tools they need. When employees hear news about their company in the media and don’t have access to the facts themselves, they sometimes fill in the blanks with misinformation. Friends and family ask them for the inside scoop and employees place their own interpretation on rumors and bits of information. In addition, organizations erode trust among their employees when those employees don’t receive critical information firsthand. Businesses’ strongest advocates are often employees; ensure they are top priority during a crisis by consider the following:

  • Is the company providing all necessary details about the crisis to employees before they hear about it from media or customers?
  • What questions will employees have? Will they wonder if this affects their jobs? Are there changes they need to know about? What procedures should they follow?
  • Do leaders have the tools to give their teams regular updates throughout the crisis?
  • Do employees have talking points to explain the situation and update customers, family and friends?
  • Where do employees go for answers to additional information, feedback and questions?

Fourth, develop an online strategy. It’s the beginning of a holiday weekend. Part of an organization’s infrastructure breaks down, impacting a neighborhood. The news media arrive to cover the event. The top manager initially minimizes the public fallout and posts on social media a short, factual but robotic-sounding statement, but negative comments begin to saturate social media. At first, the organization does not realize customers are posting most of their complaints on a local TV station’s Facebook page. At this point, a PR coordinator discusses developing a strategy that shows empathy and that the organization is trying to fix the issue. Three days pass before the organization posts a more detailed, empathetic response. Answering these questions will help develop an online strategy and timely responses.

  • What social media posts will the company respond to? Will posts sound genuine, friendly and empathetic or scripted, further stirring up the pot? Repeatedly posting canned responses further erodes credibility and authenticity while the public rolls its eyes in disgust.
  • Who will check commonly-used third-party forums where customers might take their grievances? For example, angry clients might vent frustrations on the Facebook page of a TV station which aired a story about the business. Don’t assume customers will spew their venom only on an organization’s official social media channels.
  • Who will check review sites such as Yelp and the Better Business Bureau to ensure the company provides proper responses?
  • Who will set up and monitor Google Alerts about the business and industry to make sure the crisis communications team knows as soon as possible when the news media and public are discussing the organization?

Companies must also understand that one way to exacerbate a crisis is to have actions not match words. If companies promise to improve in the future, it must take actual steps to do so.

Taking these steps now will help the company achieve one of the most important goals during a crisis: responding quickly. The public is impatient. The news media demand answers almost immediately. Taking too long to respond indicates, fairly or unfairly, that a business does not fully appreciate the magnitude of the situation and is insensitive.

Keith Yaskin is president of The Flip Side Communications LLC, a media company that helps companies tell their stories through video production, public relations, media training and employee communications. He has 17 years’ experience as a TV reporter, primarily an investigative journalist. He won three Emmys and three first place Associated Press Awards. The AP once named him Arizona’s TV Reporter of the Year. He graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, where he received the Gary Cummings Memorial Award as the top broadcast student. As a reporter, Yaskin covered everything from government to business to education. He has covered hurricanes and space trips to Mars and interviewed countless CEOs, public figures and celebrities.

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