Navigating a crisis when it doesn’t just “go away”
“Make it go away….” Dreaded legal action, labor or community unrest, product recalls, environmental challenges, corporate scandal, personal scandal, rogue employees, activist attacks, regulatory enforcement, acts of God are just a small sampling of the crises facing brands in the public eye. The initial instinct by an organization is to make the issue go away as quickly (and as painlessly) as possible.
But whether you’re Bill Cosby, Sony, General Motors, the law enforcement sector dealing with racial tensions, or an embattled collegiate sports institution, very rarely do inconvenient blemishes up and disappear. In fact, it’s far more likely that interest will build as a cacophony of interest groups, activists and talking heads begin to weigh in. Meticulously crafted scenario plans and tabletop drills, contingency planning, spokesperson training are crucial, but, when sparks pop, even the most intensive preparation may not be enough to effectively navigate an unwieldy crisis wildfire over the long haul. Below, an updated guide to managing crisis with an eye for the new reality.
Hope for a mile, but train for a marathon
It would be nice if we could satisfy shareholders with the reassurance, “Today’s headlines are tomorrow’s old news. ”But the lifecycle of your crisis will likely extend beyond a 24-hour or 72-hour news cycle. In depth broadcast news coverage, legal developments or competitor advances may revisit your issue at the most inconvenient or startling time: when you think the crisis is over. Be prepared for ongoing interest and have a messaging strategy for the long term. Emphasize progress and demonstrate resolution and closure. Manage internal expectations accordingly.
Major crises are rarely convenient or short lived. Decades-old conflicts or sensitive documents from the past can rear their ugly heads far beyond the initial trigger. Consistent, thoughtful communications over time should serve as the steady drumbeat of your organization’s progress and commitment throughout the crisis. Messaging should anticipate challenging developments and allow for an honest approach that upholds the company’s strategy and operational commitment. Avoid overstating claims. Stay true to your organization’s narrative and your messaging theme. Keep the conversation focused and keep your audiences well informed. Don’t necessarily shy away from repeating yourself.
Who is the messenger?
The most effective company spokesperson may not always be the President or CEO. While the official spokesperson is of course highly relevant and powerful for official or urgent communications, other voices may be critical to your audiences. Customers and regulators may be more compelled by the technical expertise and unbiased perspective of outside advisors. Consumers and employees may be more trusting of their peers through social media commentary than the company itself. Keep an active ear to the ground to determine which messengers are most effective. Don’t forget to acknowledge brand ambassadors defending your company when the time is right.
Be mindful of your timing
Communications is naturally the chief priority of professional communicators. But there will be times during a crisis that a company’s operations may not allow you to meet every media deadline on time. Do not allow the media or any other single audience to dictate your crisis management. Communications approvals may be trumped by other priorities including legal or operations that may put a wrench into the best conceived crisis plan. Be aware of, and attentive to, the fast-moving pieces throughout your operation. Aim for cohesive communications that avoids extending the news cycle. Collaborate and know what the left hand is doing.
It’s all about that base (line)
During a crisis, your monitoring team may be your most powerful behind-the-scenes tool. Create a baseline of awareness of the issue at hand and track developments over time. Intensive monitoring will help reassure your team of actual impact and identify opportunities for messaging refinement. Learn how to anticipate the lifecycle of each story. Compare each peak of news coverage to assess actual impact (How has media interest changed over time? Geographic coverage? Which media have been most likely to include your core messages and who might be a key messenger for future conversations?)
Transparency is not just about you being transparent
In this age of transparency, you must anticipate the transparency of other organizations to their shareholders. That includes the possibility of sensitive information being provided to media by activist groups or insiders sharing leaked materials by email, blogs or websites. Transparency is not a one-way street. Be prepared and assume that sensitive materials will be made public. Don’t hide or hope this away; use the information to refine your messaging.
Do not wish away a crisis or activist
Prepare to engage and disarm your critics, but do so on your own terms and timing. Avoid debate and aim for demonstrating shared values (to the extent possible). Look to your shareholders and customers as well as research to determine what matters most to your critical audiences. Are there opportunities to show alignment? The longer the conflict, the louder the cry for action.
Be wary of quick fixes, spin and other magical forces
It is tempting to become persuaded by quick fix solutions when you feel under siege. Keep your team focused on the long term success and the bigger picture. Keep your confidence in the organization and steer past loud distractions. Align with credible resources who truly understand your unique business and industry challenges, who can guide your team to the next level of excellence.
Lorna Bush is the senior vice president of San-Francisco based Fineman PR, a nationally renowned agency for its “substance not spin” approach to high profile crisis communications and issues management services. The agency has guided clients in a range of industries from education to real estate development to transportation, engineering and consumer food/beverage/services, a full range of crisis situations (including actual wildfire disasters).