Your Communications in Crisis

Do you consider your company to be a well-planned, well-oiled machine with strategic and tactical marketing and management plans in place?

Do any of those strategic or tactical plans include a communications blueprint for what to do in a crisis?

Red phone

Recently, a local news station ran a series of investigative reports that exposed issues of a multinational business headquartered in town.

I watched the company response unfold as this tenacious reporter kept the pressure on, and I couldn’t help but wonder -didn’t this company have a crisis communication’s plan in place?

Apparently not.

After the initial report (which was extremely damning), the reporter and her team went to the company looking to speak with their spokesperson. After waiting over an hour, they were told the company spokesperson was in a meeting and therefore, unavailable for comment but the reporter could schedule an appointment for a later date.

Are you freaking kidding me? You are in the middle of a scandal with national implications and you can’t pull your spokesperson out a meeting?

The optics went from bad to worse and eventually culminated in an interview with the CEO of this company where he came across as, sweaty, uncomfortable and defensive.

This reporter was like a dog with a bone. Two weeks later, the nightmare for this company continues.

My question is, why didn’t this large multinational company have a crisis communications plan in place?

I am assuming they didn’t because they failed to follow the first rule of crisis communications.

First rule of crisis communications: Control the message

The goal is to get in front of the story and control the narrative.

Burying your head in the sand, praying it goes away, or worse, letting your lawyers handle the messaging is usually a recipe for disaster.

By issuing a “no comment” you allow the media and the public to control the message. Whatever speculations abound, people are going to believe them if you are not out there as an active participant from the get-go.

A former colleague and I were discussing the situation and what we would have done differently.

This is a six-step breakdown of what we at Strategic Tactics Consulting Group, LLC would advise any of our corporate clients to do when facing a communications crisis.

Step 1: Have a corporate-wide crisis communications plan in place.

This is a preventative measure so that when something does go wrong there is no scrambling. Everyone knows exactly what the protocol is for handling the situation.

This should cover which executives may speak on behalf of the company, social media response, legal team response and employee notification.

It should include contact info for outside counsel and public relations.

Run drills.

Create different scenarios.

It’s like an insurance policy for your business. You hope and pray you will never have to use it but if you do need it you’re really happy it is there.

Step 2: Hire a heavy hitter PR firm to control the message

There are firms that focus specifically on crisis communications. These people are trained to “control the narrative.”

When it comes to crisis communications you need to get out in front of the story early. Be decisive in your response. No flip-flopping.

My very first reaction when I heard this story was that if it was me I would have been on the phone with firms like Edelman or Y&R (Young and Rubicam) immediately, which are leading US PR firms.

Have you ever tried to get a hold of a Public Relations firm? It can take weeks to get a meeting with a PR agency. PR firms work diligently on behalf of their clients. If you are not already their client, it can take time for them to get back to you. It may not be a bad idea to establish relationships before you need their services. The caveat here is that firms that specialize specifically in crisis communications, by nature of their businesses, may not be as difficult to get a hold of as a traditional PR firm in a crisis.

Bottom line: it doesn’t hurt to have a pre-established relationship.

Check with outside counsel. They may have a firm they partner with that can be brought in when the need occurs.

Step 3: Media training

As a preventative measure, whether you are a publicly-held or privately-held company, anyone who has any authority to speak on behalf of your company should receive media training.

This includes the Chairman, CEO, President, CFO, CMO and General Counsel at the minimum.

If someone at your company is expected to get in front of a camera then you want them as prepared as possible.

Google PR blunders. Stupidity reigns supreme. So, prepare your people before you send them out to the lions.

Step 4: Mea culpa

If your company is at fault, apologize. It is far better to seek forgiveness day 1 then day 21 of a scandal.

Now, the lawyers are going to tell you not to admit guilt. I am not a lawyer, but I spent almost a decade working for them. This is where a PR firm well versed in the art of crisis communications becomes invaluable.

Our opinion at STCG is that if you are going to end up apologizing anyway, it is better to do that as early in the process as possible.

Step 5: Social media

Nowadays, it feels like “innocent until proven guilty” has been turned on its head. In the court of public opinion, it’s more likely to be viewed as guilty until proven innocent and social media has a lot to do with the changing dynamic.

If you experience a business crisis make sure you have a social media team in place that can handle anything thrown your way. This is where having a crisis communications plan and being prepared comes in handy.

Ignoring detractors that want the CEO’s head on a platter is probably not the best social media strategy to employ in a crisis.

Social media is a tool that allows you to control your message because you can speak directly to the people without any filters or third-party perspectives coloring the narrative. This is not the place for mudslinging. Be professional!

Step 6: Keep your employees informed

Employees need to be kept in the loop. If a gag order is issued then that needs to be explained along with who the appropriate people are in which to refer inquiries.

Gossip and speculation run rampant among employees kept in the dark. I once told a VP at a company I worked at that if I listened to every story running around the building eventually I would hear that Bigfoot had been spotted in the parking lot.

So, inform your people about what is happening and how your response is being crafted and deployed.

Final takeaways:

Got some time? Grab a copy of Crisis Communications The Definitive Guide to Managing the Message by Steven Fink. It’s a read that is definitely worth your time.

Prepare your company’s crisis communication’s plan now.  You never know when your biggest competitor is going to screw up a government contract and make the front page of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal on the same day (true story) causing increased speculation for everyone operating in your industry. If it can happen to them, it can happen to you. So, prepare!


Angela M. Insalaco is the Founder and Managing Director of Strategic Tactics Consulting Group, LLC and The Reputation Factory. She believes that a good crisis communications plan should be part of any company’s strategic and tactical planning initiatives.

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