crisis communications

Damaged Goods: Don’t Let a Crisis Turn Into a PR Nightmare. Assess the Damage First.

Getting crisis communications right requires coordinating several moving parts. And because managing a firm through a crisis is no small feat, we thought it would be beneficial to break down the major elements in a series of blog posts. What follows are our top recommendations for dealing with “damaged goods.”

In this post, we kick off our series by discussing how to assess the damage. Next, we’ll look at controlling the damage (or at least containing it). And finally, we’ll talk about the long-term damage that comes from overpromising. Of course, during any phase of a crisis, it’s always smart to consult lawyers and PR experts as needed, who can help steer you through the chaos. Very often that external perspective provides invaluable guidance for crisis communications. Let’s dig in.

damaged goodsFirst, Follow Your Plan: Don’t shoot first and ask questions later.

Remember that assessing the damage during the crisis is the first step in crisis communications that you can’t take in advance. This means that in a perfect world, you would already have a plan in place for managing a crisis…well, okay, in a perfect world, you wouldn’t need the plan because you wouldn’t be in a crisis situation at all. But if we’re assessing the damage, we’re already in crisis mode.

At this point, you need to work your crisis management plan. The most important reason to follow your plan is that you want to avoid reacting without having the right information. Your plan should give you a roadmap to ensure that your crisis management team gets the relevant information to assess the actual damage and come up with a response that addresses its causes.

So, once you have your crisis management team, spokespeople, and holding statements at the ready, it’s time to go through the process of assessing the damage.

What does the assessment process look like?

Get to the truth (or something close to the truth)—ASAP!

Your #1 goal in the assessment phase should be getting to the bottom of the crisis as quickly as possible so that you can respond and show the public that you are in control.

PR experience and theory both suggest that a successful crisis response can be summed up by the following: be quick, be accurate, and be consistent. While proper assessment is crucial for accuracy and consistency, if you don’t take action quickly enough, accuracy and consistency won’t matter.

The ultimate goal of crisis communications is to control the narrative during a crisis. So don’t let perfection be the enemy of a speedy response. You should be ready with a statement within an hour after the crisis occurs. That said, DO NOT SPECULATE. Your response should be informed by the what you know, but don’t wait to respond until you have absolutely all of the facts in front of you. Ask the following questions:

1. What kind of damage are we dealing with?

  • Public Safety Compromise: When the crisis is about public safety, the public needs to know what to do to protect themselves. Write a press release and post on social media to get the information out quickly. Make sure to acknowledge people’s concerns and questions. And rather than arguing in public, engage in a measured and meaningful way with those who are affected.
  • Brand Reputation Damage: Figure out how much of the brand is affected by the crisis. It’s important not to over or underestimate the damage. Hearing a CEO say, “I’ll look into it” doesn’t do anything to start the process of repairing the damage. But hearing her say, “I’m deeply saddened by what occurred and I’m committed to doing whatever it takes to ensure this never happens again” can go a long way toward regaining public trust.
  • Missed Numbers: Most of the time, stakeholders and the general public will forgive honest mistakes or unanticipated dips in earnings. This is not to say they will be happy about missteps that cost money. However, what they can’t often forgive are financial mistakes that end up looking like intentional deceptions. Be transparent about the circumstances and explain policy changes or business model changes that will help to avoid future financial missteps.
  • Executive Credibility Damage: This type of damage can be the most complicated to assess and can throw the firm into chaos. It’s important to acknowledge the accusations, allow any legal processes to proceed, and identify and explain cultural changes that will result.

Have templates and holding statements ready for each type of damage that is relevant for your firm. While your company’s initial response may not have much “new” information because it’s clear that a full investigation is needed to get to the real truth, your early response will help position you as a credible source of information and give you the opportunity to begin to tell your side of the story.

2. What relationship bonus points can you cash in?

Make a list of every resource you can think of that could help you assess and control the damage. Then make it a priority to contact anyone with whom you can cash in those hard-earned relationship bonus points. Keep an eye out for these sometimes overlooked beneficial relationships:

  • Traditional media can be your friend: While you may be tempted to avoid the traditional media and control the narrative by relying exclusively on your social channels, if you have contacts in the news media, don’t hesitate to contact them. Traditional media still matters and they will cover the story. Better to be up front and accessible than appear to be dodging questions and hiding.
  • Listen to your team first: It can also be tempting to be reactive, especially when your firm’s brand and reputation are on the line. But rather than firing off a tweet storm, talk to your PR team. They’ve been monitoring the situation too and are likely ready with language that you can use immediately. Strong internal communications are key during a crisis.
  • Seek legal counsel: Having strong relationships with people who understand the relevant laws that govern your industry can be a lifesaver in crisis situations. If you have a Chief Legal Officer or General Counsel, make it a point to engage with them. If you have external counsel, start building those relationships now.
  • Consider key stakeholders: Is your firm publicly traded? Make sure that you have a message for analysts and shareholders that is consistent with your media messages. Consider proactively reaching out to key shareholders and analysts to make sure that they have the appropriate public information. Could this event lead to regulatory or legislative inquiries? Make sure that your Government Relations team is engaged.

Every business, at some point, will have to deal with a crisis. Assessing the damage and using proven principles of crisis communications will determine the difference between a response that demonstrates your firm’s credibility or further damages your brand. Ultimately, when you know what went wrong, you can start the process of repairing the damage.

If you’re deep in the throes of crisis mode now, we wish you good fortune and hope to see you on the other side. Ideally though, if you see your firm on a collision course with a crisis, schedule a consultation with our team and let’s go to work to help you lessen or avoid the damage altogether. At Audacia Strategies, we use bold moves to conquer any crisis!

This is the first in a series of posts on crisis communications. Be sure to return to check out the rest of the series.

Photo credit: stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo

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