“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it,” Warren Buffett said.
The stakes are higher than ever for today’s modern crisis communicator. Cybersecurity attacks are on the rise and information is shared globally in an instant. Social media amplifies the coverage and scrutiny of a crisis, and a scandal that might have lost momentum in the traditional news cycle can easily reach viral proportions online.
Target, Wells Fargo, United Airlines and many others have already faced significant crises with varying success. It is clear that any company is vulnerable, and a traditional media relations strategy is no longer enough. Organizations must prepare a multichannel crisis response plan to protect their most valuable asset: their reputation.
Be prepared for your organization’s worst-case scenario by following these five essential steps.
1. Identify Risks
Identifying potential risks, such as a data breach or ethics scandal, is the first step to preparing for a crisis. Once you have established the possible events that could negatively affect your organization’s reputation, operations or bottom line, you can map your crisis communication and risk management strategies. Remember that the goal of your crisis response is to lessen or prevent damage to your brand.
2. Respond Right Away
When it comes to bad news, be the first to address it. Designate a crisis communications team to anticipate questions and prepare talking points. Be upfront, accurate and transparent, and make sure your information is credible. You can better control the message when you communicate it early.
Make sure you can answer the following questions:
- What happened?
- What caused it?
- What are you doing in response?
- Where and when did it happen?
- Why wasn’t it prevented?
- Will it happen again?
3. Engage Your Audience
Identify your audience to tailor your messaging directly to them. You must know who your stakeholders are and who is most affected by the adverse event. Use social media listening and monitoring tools to access real-time information on the public’s response. Be prepared to identify who is at fault and take responsibility for the crisis.
4. Acknowledge and apologize
In the face of a media firestorm, it can be tempting to pass the buck. Do NOT blame others. Instead, be empathetic, acknowledge responsibility and uncertainty, and do not speculate or reassure repeatedly. Share how you are handling the crisis and your precautions to ensure the event does not happen again.
5. Be Consistent
From the CEO and management team to front-line customer service representatives, employees need to know the company’s response in the wake of a crisis. Identify and develop a few key messages that are simple, easy to understand and jargon-free, and share them with all staff and stakeholders.
When the dust settles, take stock of the crisis and the effectiveness of your response. Careful public channel and social media monitoring is a critical final step to identify what worked and what didn’t to adjust your crisis management strategy for the future.
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Effective Media Communication during Public Health Emergencies: A WHO Handbook. Hyer RN and Covello VT. Geneva, World Health Organization, 2007.
Leadership Communication: How Leaders Communicate and How Communicators Lead in Today’s Global Enterprise. E. Bruce Harrison and Judith Muhlberg. Business Expert Press, New York, 2014.
Damage Control: The Essential Lessons of Crisis Management. Eric Dezenhall and John Weber. Penguin Group, New York, 2011.
Charlotte Clay manages marketing communications for SmartBrief, including the company’s instagram and LinkedIn accounts. She is currently completing a Master’s in Public Relations and Corporate Communications at Georgetown University. Connect with Charlotte on LinkedIn.