In a time of what seems to be cultural volatility with the added destabilizer of a coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak thrown in, you should at least be considering the importance of having your own “crisis plan” locked and loaded. Don’t have one yet? No worries. Most small-to-medium sized brands probably don’t. But any business, regardless of size or level of influence, benefits from having a game plan for when things go sideways.
And no, of course, I’m not talking about doomsday prepping or stashing cash under your mattress: I’m talking about a crisis in communications.
Local business caught hand delivering product to black market brothel! (Pizza delivered to strip club) Area man found alone at office at midnight surrounded by dead animals! (Local veterinarian had a late night at work) Once-trusted neighbor violently knocks innocent woman’s tooth out! (Dentist does his job). Yeah, these may sound absurd, but bizarre stories can circulate and get out of control—and it can even happen to you.
If there are a thousand reasons why you could end up the victim of bad press, there are even more for having a plan at the ready. Plus, if you think your crisis potential through thoroughly and handle eventualities well enough, you may even be able to turn a bad situation around to your benefit. Here are my seven steps for correcting a PR crisis.
1. Anticipate Crises and Know Your Stakeholders
You may not be likely to find yourself accused of knocking someone’s tooth out, but it will do you some good to sit down—right now—and go over crises that really could happen to you. Anticipating a bad rap is half the battle to defeating it. If you’re in medicine, for example, you’ll want to look through common malpractice complaints, or if you sell branded products consider how people might misinterpret your logo. Once you have your list, you can think through plans. Also, you can contact other affiliated parties and stakeholders and go through your orchestrated response with them. Do know that when or if a crisis does hit, it won’t match perfectly to what you’ve anticipated. However, all that research, insight, and review you did will put you many, many steps ahead of the game—potentially enough for you to effectively avert a much worse disaster.
2. Assess the Crisis and Review Any Data
There is no need to fly into action off the cuff. When something hits, stop, sit, focus, and review what’s going on. Do not hurry. Collect the data, get all the information. Don’t just listen to one voice, and certainly don’t throw your lot in with the press, but get many perspectives on what’s going on before acting. Then do your response research and get your house in order for the fight.
3. Identify Your Team
You’ll need help—do not do anything alone. Get your best comms people on the case, or outsource for an experienced hand. You’ll need a good spokesperson, a good writer, a few external allies, you know, a handful of media-savvy people. The folks you have on your side should, of course, already have been familiarized with your preexisting plans and list of possible crises. Gather them together and discuss how to respond.
4. Prepare Statements
This should be an obvious move. But what you’ll need first, specifically, are a few bulletproof holding statements for while you’re developing a more comprehensive response. These are quick one liners like “As a pizza delivery service, we take public complaints seriously and are reviewing all incoming details.” Or “Happy Cat Vet Services will offer more information once we have thoroughly assessed all the facts.” As you push those out, you’ll have the time you need to prepare a bigger or more complete statement.
5. Train and Deploy Spokespeople
A good spokesperson is critical. You’ll need someone who can communicate well and articulate ideas without seeming defensive or offhand. Once you’ve picked your people, train them in the language and the argument and discuss thoroughly with them any secondary issues that may arise in the response to your response. A good spokesperson should know enough to bring up important points and insights that will help shape your statement.
6. Establish Speedy and Clear Communications
Once you start pushing your material out there, do it fast and hit as many targets as you can. Make sure the argument you’re making is clear and the language is not muddled or incomplete. One of the best things to do is to start out by claiming some kind of common ground with those on the other side—which may come in the form of admitting to an amount of blame for a mistake. Doing this opens doors to reconciliation and also allows people to really hear what your saying rather than judge you on what they’ve heard. The likelihood of controlling the damage and coming out of the crisis in one piece just went up considerably.
Once the crisis is over is when things begin. Now you have a real, live example of a comms mishap in your back pocket. So use it. Analyze what happened, what went wrong, what went right, and use that information. Fortify yourself against future incidents by integrating it into your prepared crisis plan. Now you can feel better about handling a mudslinging fight the next time something silly comes along.
Crises don’t just happen to bad people who do bad things, especially in the days of the internet they can literally happen to anyone. The only way to protect yourself is to be ready. You’ve been warned.