If you’re a regular reader of this blog and already have robust crisis management plans in place, you are excused from reading this post! Whilst it would be nice to assume that most organisations are in this happy position, it would also be naïve. So what should an organisation that has developed a positive reputation consider as its first steps in reputation protection?
A strong corporate reputation is acknowledged as a valuable business asset, one which takes years to build, and requires constant nurturing to maintain. Recent crises suffered by Costa Cruises, Blackberry, Goldman Sachs and FedEx show that a major incident or issue puts that reputation on the line. The outcome can be devastating; but it doesn’t have to be.
Rigorous preparation is the most important factor in protecting corporate reputation in the event of a crisis. For example, when FedEx responded so well to YouTube footage of a delivery man throwing a PC into a customer’s front yard, it was surely due at least in part to thorough planning.
More than that, research shows that thorough preparation actually reduces the likelihood of a major crisis happening in the first place. This is because the preparation phase highlights flaws and vulnerabilities that can be addressed, and creates a heightened sense of crisis awareness and vigilance that acts as an early warning system to snuff out potential crises before they escalate and emerge. So engaging in crisis preparation and prevention is one of the best investments you can make.
Here are some of your first steps to protect your corporate reputation:
1. Identify and prioritise reputational risks – involve colleagues from different functions in this process to ensure you cover as many threats as possible. Encourage people to think worst case scenario rather than adopting an attitude of “it could never happen here”. This is especially important in the context of the transparency created by social media as experienced, for example, by LA Fitness. Knowing where the threat can come from and its possible impact helps you to prevent a possible crisis, or at least develop necessary communication contingencies.
2. Identify your stakeholders – it sounds obvious, but so many organisations still flounder when they need to communicate with the media, customers, suppliers, regulators, local politicians and even employees in the heat of a crisis. Make sure you have up to date contact details always to hand and make someone in your organisation responsible for updating them on a quarterly basis.
3. Establish communication channels to reach your stakeholders in a crisis – identify the likely ways in which you will reach stakeholders in a crisis whether an online crisis hub, teleconference or press briefing. Work out the process and resources required to activate these channels in a crisis, and make sure that they are available out of hours. Never rely on the availability of a single expert or a technical guru: always have deputies in place. Nowadays online channels should be an essential part of your armoury: create an online crisis communication hub which will contain all your key information, have Twitter accounts set up and ready to go, and make sure you are able to create and upload a YouTube video within hours, even at the dead of night.
4. Form a crisis communication team – identify and brief the people who will likely form your crisis communication team. Make sure they have the relevant expertise and personal qualities necessary to communicate with stakeholders in a crisis. As well as technical experts – for example in social media, internal communications and the media – make sure that you have administrative and technical support available.
5. Identify and equip a crisis communication team room – a dedicated crisis communication team room containing resources such as direct phone lines, Wi-Fi, televisions, telephone contact lists, whiteboards, flipcharts and so on will form your nerve centre in the event of a crisis. Identify where you will locate this room ahead of the crisis and ensure that it is always stocked with the necessary resources. An adjacent quiet room, in which statements and other documents can be prepared, is also useful. Make sure that both rooms are out of the range of camera lenses!
6. Prepare a crisis manual – a set of clear processes and materials (for example, template holding statements) is an invaluable aid to effective decision-making in a crisis. But make sure it is not so large and detailed that it is unwieldy in a real incident.
7. Train the crisis team – whilst a crisis manual is valuable, a well-trained crisis communication team is invaluable. Make sure that they are properly briefed on crisis procedures through desktop exercises, invest in crisis communication training via realistic simulations, and put spokespeople through professional media training to ensure they can get their message through when the heat is on. Nowadays, it also makes sense to run regular social media simulations to get teams match-fit for the relentless pace of an online crisis.
8. Keep your crisis planning alive – a common trap is to treat crisis communication planning as a one off event. Avoid this pitfall by re-visiting the manual regularly, planning a schedule of training courses or team events, and building relationships with your internal and external stakeholders before a crisis occurs.
Preparation is essential if organisations want to protect their corporate reputation in the event of a crisis. Sound judgement and skilful leadership will also be required, but having strong foundations on which to apply these skills provides a significant headstart.