Here's what to do when your company is facing its first reputation crisis

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No matter what industry they operate in, large companies sooner or later find themselves on the receiving end of customer anger. Regardless of whether the grievance has any merit, a chance also exists that a simple complaint could snowball into something larger, either through social or traditional media. At other times, a more significant event like a privacy breach, power outage, product recall or fraud can end up in the media directly, putting companies in a reactive or defensive position from the start.

The damage that a crisis can inflict on a brand can be significant and is well recognized. In fact, reputation damage ranked as the top risk in Aon's global risk management survey last year. Part of this is a recognition that reputations are built over the course of years and decades, but it can take just a few news cycles to do them serious harm.

As a result, big companies have sophisticated plans, information networks, crisis committees and various contingencies to help them quickly and effectively respond to a reputation issue. Most also routinely retain external experts to run simulations, audit their plans with an eye for constant improvement, and train leaders on how to respond to media inquiries when crisis hits.

But what happens when you're a startup or a mid-sized company which has enjoyed rapid growth with few hiccups, and you haven't spent a lot of time planning for a potential crisis? What do you do when the first headlines hit, the phone starts ringing and customers, suppliers, regulators and investors are demanding answers which you don't readily have available?

Speaking from experience with crises both large and small, getting external advice from a level-headed crisis management expert is a smart move. But over and above that, here are three basic, practical things you should do right away when your company faces a crisis for the first time, or you're unprepared. 

1. Find out who has the facts, and get them in front of your seniorleadership team as soon as possible.

It's absolutely crucial to immediately figure out who inside your business is the closest to the issue at hand and has the relevant facts. That's because factually accurate information is the bedrock of any crisis response strategy. Until you have at least some of the facts, there's little you can say externally, other than acknowledging you're aware of a problem and are looking into it.

In addition, if you prematurely make a comment which ends up misstating the facts, it can come back to bite you. Even if it's just an honest factual error, you could later be accused of trying to mislead your stakeholders, which can create another negative storyline for you to manage.

Once you've found the issue owner, get that person or team in front of your company's senior leaders - fast. This is not a time for sticking to a slow hierarchy before booking a meeting for the following day. Social (and, increasingly, traditional) media move in real time, which means you need to do so as well.

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Instead of waiting, meet immediately, hash out what you know and how you will find out what you do not. Make sure your communications team is at the table, as well. They'll be your main pipeline to external audiences, and the more plugged in they are early on, the faster you can respond. They should also be closely be monitoring social media sentiment and early media coverage online.

2. Formulate your first response

As soon as your leadership has all the early facts, agree with your communications team on who should respond to the issue, and how. It's most likely that your starting stance will be very factual and neutral in tone. Just as there are no second chances to make a first impression, this first public response will set the tone for how you handle the issue going forward.

Equally important: who will be your spokesperson? The reality is that organizational seniority of the spokesperson typically reflects how much attention the company is paying to the issue. In a fairly significant crisis, with a stock-price impact, your CEO likely would be the one to respond, at least to the top-tier media outlets in your industry covering the story. Meanwhile, your communications team should draft the messaging storyline, handle your response on social media, prepare written statements for customers, and line up media interviews. They should also quickly run your CEO through a mock interview to prepare her or him for the most likely questions.

If it's clearly obvious the crisis is due to your company's actions (or a failure to act), you should strongly consider a prompt and transparent apology. Sincere apologies garner good will with impacted stakeholders, and have been seen as a potential lawsuit deterrent. Lawyers sometimes counsel against apologizing, lest it later be seen as an admission of guilt in a court of law. That's a discussion to have with your legal team, but various laws now exist - depending on your jurisdiction - which protect apologies from being treated as an admission of fault or liability.

I've also seen a number of instances where companies refused to apologize for to their customers because they believed the fault was with a third-party supplier. That's a mistake. The customer is your customer, not the supplier's. 

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You should also be prepared to admit you don't have all the answers. During my communications career, I sometimes would hear crisis advisors say, "you have to control the story on your terms, so always stick to your messages, regardless of what you're being asked." Sometimes that works. Often, it does not. You will rarely be faulted for plainly stating that the situation is moving rapidly and that you're working as fast as you can to obtain the relevant information.

3. Keep the information flowing internally and externally

If you've promised you will do everything you can to get answers, then you should absolutely make sure you do it. That means that when your company's initial leadership meeting described in point No. 1 has concluded, the group should have already agreed to reconvene for a series of future updates. This is a critical time, and one where companies often lose control of the storyline. If the gap between your first response and follow up is too wide, you run the significant risk of letting other voices recast the crisis and tell the story for you.

As soon as you have more facts, and your leaders and internal advisors (legal, investor relations, compliance, and others) have had a chance to weigh the information and develop an update, you should share it externally across your social channels, and reach out proactively to the reporters covering the story. Don't wait for the phone to ring. If the media aren't calling you, you can bet they're calling someone else who might be providing them with inaccurate or biased information, intentionally or otherwise.

You should also consistently be going back to fact check that everything you're sharing internally and externally is verified as accurate before you disseminate it. It takes a lot of effort to pull back wrong information or to correct media reporting errors which you created with inaccuracy, so it really pays to double- and triple-check.

Here's something you likely won't be thinking about while dealing with the crisis, but should be: your decisions and actions should be recorded. When you have a moment, write down what you've done and how you've done it as it's happening. That will make any post-mortem of the crisis much more valuable and help prepare you for the future.

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Advice, perspective and experience

The three points above will help you cope with the initial impact of crisis. But if this is your first time at the rodeo, you really should enlist someone with experience in the arena. Perhaps you have a veteran executive on your advisory board, or maybe your head of sales chaired the reputation risk committee at the last company where she worked. In addition, outside advisors with crisis management experience can be brought in to help.

Lastly, you have to ensure that this is a learning experience for you and your company, and that you invest in preparing for the future. Proactive planning can drastically reduce your response times when the next issue hits, and there's no better time for it than right after a crisis.

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