How to Plan Ahead to Help Prepare Your Business for a PR Crisis
It’s easy to dream of the highs you’ll experience when you run your own business. But considering the lows—and the publicity they might generate—is equally important, especially in an age where information travels like wildfire.
Would you know what to do in the face of a public relations crisis? We look at the issues to consider and what you can do to mitigate problems before they get out of hand.
Prepare Before the Crisis Hits
Perhaps you’ve thought about how you might respond if your product injured a customer. Or a former employee began spreading rumors on social media about a toxic workplace. But if the media came calling, would you know what to do?
According to Jeannine Sherman, communications consultant and Marketing Director with the Wisconsin Historical Society, developing a communication plan before you’re in a crisis is critical. “Without a plan, you risk losing control of the narrative which is the last thing you want to do.”
And while you may feel you can wing it because you’re good on your feet or had a good interview on the local news once, ‘playing it by ear’ is not recommended.
Outline Roles and Responsibilities
Sherman says that while every situation is unique, an effective plan navigates the business through the crisis to a positive outcome—or at least strives to keep damage to a minimum. Get started by thoroughly assessing roles, responsibilities, and readiness.
Are you comfortable speaking on your company’s behalf, or does the thought of a camera and microphone in your face make you shudder? If so, who might you designate as a spokesperson?
“Whether it’s you or someone else, it’s important to have one point of contact with the media,” Sherman says. Doing so projects an image of consistency and trust to customers past, present and future. To ensure a polished approach, Sherman recommends media training for in-house spokespersons.
In addition to the role of spokesperson, other vital roles can help with crisis management and communication.
For example, your production head can research what went wrong if a product failed and recommend changes to fix the issue. Or your lead in human resources can speak to why a former employee might want to harm your business.
The more information you have from these subject experts, the more genuine and believable you’ll appear.
Expect the Unexpected
While preparation may give you a leg up in a public relations crisis, you may still find yourself in an uncomfortable spotlight. However, breaking down the crisis into manageable pieces can help put things in perspective.
Assess where the crisis fits on a scale of one to ten and respond accordingly. For example, if your former employee had spread rumors about your company on Facebook, holding a press conference would only magnify the issue and legitimize their actions.
“You don’t want to elevate a situation unnecessarily,” says Sherman. However, you don’t want to downplay a severe issue. If your product failure caused a serious or fatal injury, your silence might implicate you further.
The scope of the crisis dictates the proper spokesperson. If severe, a company leader or the business owner should address the issue. Otherwise, someone close to the situation, such as a product engineer, may be more appropriate. Again, prior media training is recommended.
Once you’ve assessed the severity of the crisis, work with your team to create message points. These are the facts you’ll share or statements you’ll make in interviews and on social media.
These include ‘holding statements,’ responses for the media when you don’t have enough information to share yet. An example of a holding statement for a product failure might be: “We’re looking into the situation and will comment soon when we know more.”
“The worst thing you can say is nothing at all,” says Sherman. “Being accessible, informed and transparent builds credibility and trust,” giving you and your business an advantage.
Develop messaging for all your audiences, including customers, suppliers, shareholders, and competitors. Consider, too, where this messaging should live so that these audiences can see it, such as your company Facebook page or website.
Finally, consider your messaging to be a dialogue that changes, if necessary, as the crisis plays out. Don’t just set it and forget it.
Once you’ve planned and prepared your strategy, conduct a communications crisis drill and practice responding. Doing so will help you identify where your plan works and where it might need shoring up.
It will also make you and your team more comfortable in the event a real crisis occurs.