by Judith Middleton on 08/02/13 at 12:30 pm
At a recent Reputation War Conference in Paris much attention was given to the increasing number of information sources and the explosion of social media that has led to the scrutinisation by an attentive audience ready to pass judgement and where customers demand higher levels of openness and ethical behaviour from organisations they engage with.
Riding out the storm successfully needn’t mean hiring an expensive specialist who comes in to prey on your brand fears but it will show the depth of understanding and tenacity of your PR partner. After an interesting 2012 during which DUO supported a favourite client through what could have been a nightmare experience, my instinct has been confirmed: The most important tools for survival are a level head, common sense and a solid set of values.
There’s no template or checklist to follow: Every client, and every case, should be dealt with on its own terms. But there are five things every company and its PR team can do to make sure they come through a crisis with no major damage.
1. Prepare thoroughly and move fast
Have your PR partner draw up a media crisis response plan today and put it where you can find it again easily. In times of panic, having a checklist will keep you on track.
If and when a crisis does hit, prepare as much as you can before you need to face the media. Prepare likely questions and answers, draft appropriate statements for different audiences, brief your staff identify a single media contact person and make sure they are well trained to handle interviews.
2. Prioritise your customers
Don’t let your customers find out what’s going on through the media. This is particularly critical if they are other businesses, rather than consumers. Someone who’s just renewed a large contract with you will not be pleased by being blindsided when their boss sees you on the evening news. Finding out when a journalist calls to get a comment is just as bad.
Take your customers into your confidence as early as possible, treat them with respect and make the CEO available to take their calls – the sales director isn’t going to cut it at this point. In the case of our client, the CEO responded to every single query that came in and that made an enormous difference to irate individuals.
3. Neutralise reckless and irresponsible journalism
Most journalists are thorough, well-trained, ethical and competent and will gather and check their facts carefully before publishing. Sadly, there are bad apples in every basket (including PR), which in journalism means a handful that will happily write and publish based on unverified information from a single, unnamed source. Cultivate the first kind, and move quickly to sideline the second kind when you’re unfortunate enough to encounter them.
In one case this year we saw an inaccurate, damaging story published prominently in a weekend newspaper. The threat was that this version would be all over the media by Monday if we didn’t move fast. Between the client and PR team, we were able to neutralise the story with a calm presentation of the facts, before it got out of hand. Good relationships with top journalists were worth a lot that day.
4. Transparency rules
The lifespan of an information vacuum is staggeringly short. Where people don’t have facts, they will fill the gap with rumour and speculation, which could deepen and lengthen the crisis. A company whose CEO utters a “no comment” in the middle of a crisis needs to fire its PR agency on the spot, because they’re not doing their job in advising their clients how to manage media in a crisis.
The correct response is to be as transparent as possible, leaving no gaps. If there’s information you don’t have yet, explain that and say when you expect things to change. If you need to hold something back to avoid compromising an investigation, say that too – but don’t use it as an excuse if it isn’t really true. Be as open and honest as you can at every stage, talk to the media appropriately and keep them informed.
5. Have a reputation for integrity and competence
A good reputation is the single most important thing that will carry you through a crisis, and it’s not something you can organise on the day the storm breaks. It’s built over years through every interaction you have. If your customers, suppliers, journalists and other stakeholders already trust your integrity, competence and good faith, your chances of surviving with only minor damage are much higher.
Strong relationships are a further benefit of a good reputation. In the midst of our client’s crisis, they were moved and impressed by the good will they encountered. One customer called in to a radio show during a live interview to confirm his ongoing support despite the situation– no money can buy an endorsement so valuable. Industry experts offered valuable advice and journalists were prepared to accept their assurances.
This is the most important lesson of all: Good crisis management begins long, long before a crisis hits. Part of it is conducting your business in a way that will survive the harshest scrutiny – and part of it is having a competent, robust PR team on your side that knows your company, industry and business risks intimately. It’s not impossible to emerge from a crisis with your reputation enhanced but that depends entirely on PR competence, transparency and co-operation. After all, who wants to sail in a ship with a captain who’s never made it through a storm?
Judith Middleton is CEO of DUO, which she founded in 2004. DUE provides a complete marketing and PR solution to companies in the ICT industry. Engineers and technologists are not marketers by nature and few growing companies need or want to build their own marketing departments. DUO fills the gap with a unique and powerful combination of business, technology and marketing knowledge. Find out more by visiting their site: www.duomarketing.co.za View more articles by Judith Middleton.
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