An employee gets in a drunk driving accident after the company’s holiday party. A teacher is accused of having an improper relationship with a student. A component of your most beloved product is discovered to be faulty. Your CEO is publicly pummeled for earning “too much.” The President of the United States tweets something unflattering about your brand.
To an unsuspecting leader, none of the above is good news. But when is a situation a crisis and when is it, instead, an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive?
More often than not, companies can create communications crises by either not addressing a situation at all or not addressing it well. Unfortunately, it is too easy to handle a media situation the wrong way. Personalities and egos flare. Emotions can get in the way of logic. Blame and accusation fight for center stage. Avoidance disguises itself as an acceptable option. A strong leader must prevail against all of these temptations.
So what is a company to do when it is caught off guard? Here are 10 steps that can help prevent a communications crisis, when simple communication will do.
- Have a communications team. It should be in place before a crisis happens. It should be made up of the company leaders, a legal expert, and someone well versed in the media
- Appoint one spokesperson. While there may be different audiences (shareholders, the media, employees, etc.) who seek information, there should be one voice of authority for each audience (or for all of the audiences, if appropriate) so that messaging is consistent.
- Get the story straight. Write one paragraph that explains what has occurred. Having a succinct and accurate story is at the foundation of a successful communications plan. If you can’t all agree on what happened, how are you supposed to explain it to the public?
- Start with the end in mind. How do you want the situation to end up? Plan accordingly, backwards.
- Be honest. Cover-ups are always worse than reality. Explain what happened, or what may have happened. Avoidance is prolonging the inevitable while ensuring that a cloud of suspicion will hover over your company’s reputation for a long time to come.
- Take action. After explaining the accusation, immediately provide the actions the company is taking to achieve greater understanding, right the wrong, or declare innocence.
- Pick your core message, , Be sure to say it, even if not asked.. Act like a politician, who is more apt to use a question as an opportunity to state his or her own agenda than actually provide the requested information.
- Know what to avoid. Come up with alternative answers, in advance. While this may sound counterintuitive to the push for honesty above, it isn’t. There are always better ways of saying things. Knowing the right (most advantageous) way to communicate often comes after getting clear on what is least desired.
- Have a clear corporate communications policy in advance. Instruct all employees on the dos and don’ts. What is okay to share with your neighbor when approached while in the market checkout line? What is appropriate to share on social media? These issues must be addressed in advance, as word of mouth is still the fastest way of creating a viral message.
- Know that all situations (good and bad) are temporary. A wise company will use all situations, both pleasurable and adverse, as learning experiences from which to grow. What may seem like a crisis may instead be an opportunity for a company to present its grace and brilliance to the world. An institution that has integrity at its core will turn lemons into lemonade when tested.
At Teak, we use this as a guide when we watch how companies handle themselves when confronted by the media, and we learn from the many experiences that are presented as we aim to provide sound council to our clients. If nothing else, we have a great time playing Monday morning quarterback at our weekly meetings as we discuss what companies did right and wrong while sweating it out under the head of the media spotlight.