As much as we’d like to believe it, a public relations crisis doesn’t always happen to some other business. In this era of instantaneous digital technology, even a small customer complaint can metastasize overnight into a full-blown crisis. But while it’s inaccurate to say that such a crisis is inevitable, nonetheless small business owners who plan ahead for the unforeseen are generally better equipped to weather the storm than those who have no crisis communications plan in place.
Here are tips to help you formulate a plan of action when a crisis strikes, as well as general principals to guide your conduct during a difficult time:
1. Engage with media and the public, rather than try to outsmart them. Let’s assume that the nature of the crisis—be it a product recall, surprise civil liability lawsuit against your business, alleged employee criminal behavior, etc.—meets the criteria for a necessary public response. In such cases, expect that the demand for information will likely include what happened, why it happened, what solutions are being considered and how your customers will be reimbursed for their troubles.
PR specialists like Sharon Cain of Quest PR sum up a business leader’s required actions this way:
- Acknowledge the problem or crisis—say “we know what is happening and we are doing something about it.”
- Stick to the facts and don’t speculate.
- Be honest and transparent and don’t try to cover or obscure the issue.
In other words, tell the truth.
2. Select a single spokesperson to represent your business. In many cases, it falls to the owner or CEO to stand up for a company under media siege. Sometimes this responsibility is assigned to a media or PR representative. Whatever the situation, it’s imperative to select one individual to represent your business and to allow no one else to act as an “additional” spokesperson. Many PR mishaps only get more complicated when two or more people step forward to defend the organization.
3. Remain calm in the eye of the storm. It’s asking a lot of an individual, but the most effective public persona to strike in the midst of a crisis is staying calm. If you’re the spokesperson, you will be “bombarded by doubts, questions, negativity, and grievances as you struggle to lead your company and your team out of the morass,” notes PR expert Murray Newlands. Keep a steady hand on the tiller and “don’t succumb to frustrations, panic, or anger, as your staff is going to be looking up to you to discover a solution.”
4. Think before speaking out on social media. Platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter can be enormously helpful in getting your message out. But they can also be filled with perilous forums in which you and your business can get mired in seemingly endless negative chatter.
When a crisis strikes, you obviously can’t avoid referring to it on your social media networks. At the same time, remember to never get into back-and-forth exchanges with trolls or anyone else who seeks to bring further damage to your company’s reputation.
The best advice is to take a deep breath before composing and sending a message.
“Publish a neutral statement showing you’re aware of the situation and that you’re investigating the matter,” writes social media strategist Lesya Liu. “Do not go into details of what happened just yet, before you get the full picture, and don’t make any comments acknowledging or rejecting any fault.”
Of course, prior to holding a press conference or issuing a statement, you should consult with your company attorney. They might wish to err on the side of extreme caution, so the most effective approach may be to weigh their legal advice against the potential damage to your brand if you choose to say or do nothing at all.
Remember, your ultimate priority during any crisis is to preserve the trust of your customers.
Want more advice on crisis management or general advice from other business owners like you? Check out TAB's PULSE Survey on Family Business.