We’ve all had those days. You know, the days where you are forced to pull your IPO and your CEO gets fired, or Congress launches an official investigation into your safety procedures, or your company is the target of whistleblower claims.
No? You’ve never experienced a business crisis like this? Then, you’re one of the lucky ones. But keep reading because even if it’s not to the scale of the situations above, you may someday find yourself in a sticky business credibility situation.
We’ve talked before about preparing a crisis response strategy from a PR perspective. Now I’d like to take a look at what to do inside a business. How do you handle your response with employees and customers?
How to Respond to a Business Crisis
When a challenge to your firm’s reputation arises, it’s important that you meet the challenge with a crisis response strategy not only for rebuilding your brand’s outward facing reputation, but also for addressing the crisis internally. You can’t expect your team or customers to read between the lines of your external messaging. Plus, you owe it to them to communicate beyond the “party line.”
As always, I recommend creating your crisis response strategy well before you find yourself walking into the chaos of a crisis. Consider the following 5 G’s as you build your framework:
1. Get to ground truth.
When a crisis happens, it’s important to keep two things in mind: you need to respond promptly and you need to respond truthfully. Surviving the crisis is all about how you balance these two factors. There can be a tendency to sacrifice truth for the sake of speed and vice versa. Ideally, you will avoid both pitfalls.
DO NOT SPECULATE. Your internal crisis response strategy should be informed by what you know, but you cannot wait to respond until you have absolutely all of the facts in front of you. So what can you do? Be transparent about what you know, where you are in the process and what you are doing. It’s important to acknowledge the credibility challenges (all of them), allow any legal processes to proceed, and identify and explain the steps you are taking.
2. Gather your team.
Even if you are the only person in your particular department, you will need a team. Whether you’re in finance, legal, communications, HR—as the saying goes, “look for the helpers.” Remember, it takes time to gather your team. So plan ahead and notify the relevant parties that you may call on them and what roles they will play in the crisis response strategy.
Once you’ve gathered your team, listen to them. It can be tempting to be reactive, but try to get a well rounded perspective before making any big decisions. Otherwise, you run the risk of overpromising in the hopes that you can make the whole thing go away.
Instead, get a baseline. Get perspective. And give context.
- Did your numbers tank this quarter? Focus on the data, not drama. Look at firm-wide numbers, the market, and get a line on how competitors are faring. You need a clear baseline before you can respond realistically.
- Is there a government investigation? Get to ground truth (see above). Work closely with your legal department, but also encourage as much transparency as possible. The appearance of concealing or stonewalling is not a good look either inside or outside the firm.
- Is someone accused of misconduct? Again, get to ground truth (see above). Also, consider re-emphasizing policies, values, and company culture within the firm (assuming they are not the cause of the misconduct).
3. Give employees the support they need.
Employees are most likely to end up on the frontlines during a crisis. They will be communicating with customers, other employees, regulators, etc. Do not leave them “swinging in the wind” as they try to clean up the mess they didn’t create.
Arm them with the facts and engage them in an ongoing and transparent conversation about what the firm is doing to repair or recover its reputation. Use the channels appropriate for your organization—email, text, newsletter, video, Slack, person-to-person meetings, etc.
Meet employees where they are—during a crisis they should not have to search for answers. Part of your crisis response strategy should include resources for employees on the frontlines. Communicate with employees early and often.
- Whenever possible keep the touch personal. For example, answer questions during a town hall, Zoom meeting, or video conference.
- Create manager talking points ahead of time and distribute them as soon as you’re ready after a crisis hits.
- Don’t say anything to employees that you wouldn’t say outside the company. This can be controversial, but it’s reality. Memos leak. Video and audio recordings can be shared. Screenshots can end up in the wrong hands. Be transparent and be prepared for what that means inside and outside the company.
4. Go on the offensive with customers.
If the crisis impacts customers directly or has been/will be in the press, go on the offensive and own the issue. Rather than trying to totally control the crisis, though, let your mindset be one of getting your version of the facts out first. Again, make sure you explain to employees what your crisis response strategy looks like with regard to customers.
Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean sugarcoating anything. Be transparent about next steps and honest about the potential impact (if any) on clients. Also, be sure that your customer communications are consistent with employee communications. As you consider these messages, your tone may differ, but the overall message should be consistent. The same goes for investors.
5. Grant trust.
Follow the above 4 G’s and this last G should come naturally. When you create your crisis response strategy ahead of time, you’ll have the luxury of being able to fallback on your process. In the midst of a crisis situation, when it feels like everything is burning all around you, don’t underestimate the power of being able to trust in your people to execute on your process.
How can you be so confident? Well, the confidence comes from having a strategy, knowing your audience, and believing in the human response to truth-telling. There’s a lot to be said for a company that owns up to mistakes and expertly pivots when crises arise.
Whether you’re facing a small-scale crisis or a crisis of epic proportions like those recently faced by WeWork, Boeing, or GE, it’s helpful to remember other leaders have walked through the fire of chaos themselves. As Abraham Lincoln—no stranger to facing a crisis—once said, “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”
At Audacia Strategies, we’re no strangers to facing a crisis either. We’ve walked with our clients through the fire using the 5 G’s and we can help your firm develop the crisis response strategy that works for you as well. Schedule a consultation so we can talk about your needs.
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