A good communications plan is vital when things don’t go your way, so put a little thought into who’s going to do the talking when people start asking questions.
Not a day goes by that you can’t find a story about a company trying to explain why something went wrong with their product or services.
Oftentimes, the stories are about something related to the company’s performance. Chipotle recently had issues with food safety at its restaurants. Macy’s and other department stores reported less than expected earnings. Lululemon, the fitness wear company, had complaints about the sheerness of its fabric.
How a company responds to a crisis can literally make or break it. Take too long to get your message out and people think you’re hiding something from them. That lack of communication can lead to mistrust in your company and in your leadership abilities, and that’s not good for business.
Hopefully, any incident involving your company is minor, but should it cause a death or serious injury, or a catastrophic financial loss, expect to be flooded with questions from your employees, the media, and the community. Consider these truisms: sex sells; if it bleeds it leads. For a major happening, expect to be the lead story, online and in local and national newspapers.
How you handle a crisis will say a lot about you and your A/E/P firm. Even minor issues can become large problems if not handled correctly and within a reasonable amount of time.
When handling a crisis, consider several things:
- Bad news never gets better with age. Holding onto bad news in the hopes that your client or the community will forget or overlook an incident is not a recipe for success. Let your firm, your clients, and any other stakeholders know what has happened, so they can respond appropriately and in a timely manner. As a military commander, I gave all of my direct reports a “When to Wake Me Up” list. This helped my subordinates understand which events I deemed critical. If something occurred and it was on the list, they needed to call me immediately. If not, they could wait until the morning.
- First reports are always wrong. You may have heard this expression before. Rarely will anyone have all the facts within the first few minutes. Be deliberate and methodical in your fact-gathering and avoid guessing until a preponderance of the evidence is available. If asked for an immediate comment, leave yourself some wiggle room for when you have to correct your first report. “Based on what we know at this time, we believe …”
- “No comment” is no comment. Never give up an opportunity to tell your story. If asked for a comment when you’re not ready to provide a formal statement, there’s no harm in responding with a placeholder such as, “Our first priority is to ensure the safety of our community as we continue to gather information about this incident. We will provide more details as we conduct our investigation.”
- Stay in your lane. A friend of mine, a retired Navy pilot and former Blue Angel demonstration team member, was recently asked for his assessment of the cause of a fatal accident involving a Blue Angel pilot and his aircraft. Rather than speculating about causes, my friend wisely refrained from venturing into an area for which he had no first-hand information. He deflected the question with a simple answer: “I’d rather not make guesses on what happened. I’ll let the accident investigation team finish their work and then we’ll all have a better idea of what happened.” Avoid spreading rumors while a formal investigation is underway.
- I recommend preparing your firm for the day that will, hopefully, never come. Having an already developed crisis communication plan will make the process go as smoothly as it could possibly go.
- Designate a public relations representative within your firm. Large firms may have a designated spokesperson, but too often it’s someone in the human resources or marketing department who has never received formal training on how to handle anything more than a simple press release. Small firms should appoint someone to fill the role on an as-needed basis. In either case, your designated spokesperson must have unfettered access to your firm’s senior leaders. They are the voice of the firm, so they better have access to as much information as possible.
- Take a proactive approach. Get out in front of the situation and let your stakeholders know you’re actively working to resolve the issue.
- Coordinate and communicate. When handling a crisis event, bring all stakeholders together to share the currently available information. That way, everyone hears the same information at the same time. As an event progresses, you can always trim down the number of people required for each update meeting. For major events, consider setting a recurring meeting every four to six hours.
- Attend a media training class. As with any training program, be cautious when choosing your media consultant. Some consultants are great, while others spout theory and lack the experience of crisis communication when a fatality or other significant event is involved. You’ll do your firm a disservice by sending an untrained spokesperson to face highly trained media.
Hopefully, you won’t ever have to handle a major occurrence, but chances are you’ll have to address some relatively minor ones. Having a plan in place will help you work through the event and can make the process a little less stressful.
Bill Murphey is Zweig Group’s director of education. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.