By Charlotte Nichols, Managing Director, Harvey & Hugo
Accidents happen, but your first point of call should be a PR agency when your company’s reputation is at stake.
Because while prevention is better than cure, an effective crisis management strategy can go a long way to repairing any reputational damage should the worst happen.
What is a crisis?
In terms of PR, a crisis is anything that can damage the reputation of your organisation or cause a loss of trust.
This could be as major as an accident on site or a contamination issue, or as minor (although we use that term loosely) as a difference of opinion or a disgruntled customer.
Just recently, craft ale company BrewDog suffered its latest PR disaster when an open letter from former employees was published on Twitter, accusing management of creating a ‘culture of fear’ at the company.
The firm was quick to respond, but this wasn’t the first time concerns had been raised, so whether that was enough remains to be seen.
How to avoid a PR crisis?
First things first; make sure you have clear brand guidelines and an employee handbook that all members of your team familiarise themselves with.
This can cover all sorts, from expected behaviour on social media to what they disclose to others; the important thing is that everyone is on the same page.
Tied into this is the expectation of top-notch customer service – all the time. If your employees are always on their best behaviour (and they should be) then the chances of coming unstuck, here at least, are minimised.
You can also prepare for some of the more classic PR crises by anticipating trouble; while some issues cannot be easily anticipated, others obviously have potential to cause a stir. A poor earnings report, a price increase or a change in customer policy are all incidents that may well lead to public relations issues.
However, some PR disasters will always be totally out of your hands, and in these cases, what you need is an all-purpose strategy to mitigate the damage.
Start by assessing the possible risks your company could face; some, such as criminal activity, are universal, while others will very much depend on your sector.
By having a more specific sense of these potential occurrences, you can guide your planning more effectively.
Don’t worry about including every conceivable risk, but make sure to cover a broad range, such as a natural disaster, a cyberattack, a product or technology failure or an operational accident.
Be mindful that one of the first responses to any type of crisis is paralysis, so it’s important to make it clear what exactly will trigger your crisis management plan.
Clearly define the circumstances that will activate a particular crisis response and designate who will be in charge of implementing it at each stage.
Furthermore, make sure to develop a plan to escalate the response, in the unfortunate event that a crisis turns out to be more serious than it first appeared.
And once the danger has passed, the protocol should also establish some type of message to signal the end of a crisis.
Chain of command
One of the first things you’ll need to do when developing your crisis management strategy is decide who is in charge. During a crisis situation, employees look to management for leadership and guidance, so make sure they know who to listen to.
At this point, also develop a plan for how employees will receive key messages; that may be through email, meetings or the company’s intranet, making sure to consider how employees would be kept in the loop if your building or internal communications were no longer available.
This element of the strategy is more important than you might think; communication needs to be a top priority when it comes to getting through a crisis, because it keeps all the key players informed.
Consider all possible crises your organisation could face and develop key messages to be used in response.
Also consider what possible questions you could be asked by the media and draft responses to those. Make sure these are widely disseminated and every single member of the team knows what to say when asked – and who can say it.
With this in mind, it’s important to designate an official spokesperson to handle all media requests. This should be someone senior, but doesn’t necessarily have to be the CEO – your head of marketing or similar is an ideal choice.
Employees should already be aware of your organisation’s media and social media policy, but a quick refresh is always in order. Make sure they understand that they are not to talk to the media and that all requests should be directed to the previously agreed spokesperson.
Putting it to the test
It’s all well and good having a plan, but will it work in practice? A good way to test it out is to carry out workshops with your team to see what works – and what doesn’t.
This may be the point where you need to tweak the plan, as some issues will only arise when you’re trying it – for example, making sure everyone has the right phone numbers.
The best way to counteract negative press is with lots of positive press, to make sure people know you’ve changed and improved.
Make sure everyone knows that you’ve dealt with whatever your crisis was, as well as how you’ve done it and what you’ll be doing to ensure the same issues don’t arise in the future.
It only takes one crisis to cause permanent damage (how many readers are old enough to remember Ratners?), so if you’re not sure how to create an effect strategy, it’s best left to the experts.
A PR agency can help to prepare you for any situation you may find yourself in, helping you to develop a workable plan that will cover all eventualities.