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Crisis Communication: Anticipate and Prevent, Don’t Just React After the Fact

“It takes a lifetime to build a reputation and only a few seconds to destroy one.”

Crisis communication is tricky but the MCCI team has successfully handled many scenarios over the past 20+ years. There are definitely tips that can help you come out of a crisis situation with your company and reputation intact, but there are also steps to take before a crisis even occurs that could potentially prevent it from happening in the first place. Nearly every crisis has early warnings signs. The ability to recognize these signs and take action can make all the difference.

Scan the headlines, as crises are occurring every day: workplace violence of a fired employee gunning down employees on live television; presidential candidate Donald Trump going after automakers locating manufacturing operations outside the U.S.; a celebrity company spokesman charged with illegal activities; Mother Nature wreaking havoc; product recalls; protests; and so on. Sometimes you and your company are not the reason for the crisis, but you become involved simply by association.

Now add in social media and the internet, and any situation can go viral within seconds. Rarely is there a “local” story anymore; usually when a crisis occurs it is likely to reach a national or even worldwide audience.

Here are some tips (certainly not everything you need to know, as every crisis can be unique) to prepare for a crisis before it happens and what to do if you find yourself and/or your company in the middle of one.

Before a crisis:

  • Perform constant damage control. Don’t ignore the small stuff. Diligently monitor and put out little fires so that they don’t turn into a raging wildfire. This will help you anticipate a crisis and potentially get ahead of it before it ever really becomes one. Don’t feel you need to keep everything to yourself. Involve law enforcement or seek out other professionals to assist.

 

  • Monitor the conversation. Both online and offline, be aware of what is being said about you, your company and your industry. In any moment, you could be thrust into a crisis situation. Knowledge is everything, and every second makes a difference in a crisis. You will be better equipped to handle it if you already know what people are saying and sharing.

 

  • Invest in crisis training in advance. Buying an alarm system for your home or business after a break-in certainly may prevent future issues, but why not invest before the first incident? Advance planning and practice are worth the investment. Bring in a crisis communication expert and run through mock scenarios to address potential situations. This will help you figure out where your processes need to be adjusted to address these situations or ideally prevent them. Create and practice your communications and procedural plans at least twice a year.

 During the crisis:

  • Activate your pre-approved action plan. This is where professionals and advanced planning can be extremely helpful. Take action. Assemble your pre-assigned and trained crisis team. Address the crisis at hand. Prevent the crisis from spreading and care for those affected.

 

  • Be proactive and responsive. The first 24 hours are very crucial. The CEO or key spokesperson needs to be upfront and honest. Don’t downplay the incident or release unconfirmed information – this will help you avoid back-tracking and correcting errors. Don’t wait to make a statement. It could be something as simple as “We had (insert situation) and are working with authorities who are investigating it further; we will keep you updated as new information becomes available.”

 

  • Communicate frequently and consistently. Define and refine your message (remember: honesty, not PR “spin”). Don’t defend. Be empathetic. Put people and safety ahead of meeting production, schedules or profitability. Once information is confirmed, share it with key audiences, such as the media, employees, customers, residents, etc. Remember, be consistent in your messaging – internal communications can be released publicly. Provide updated information and respond to inquiries in a timely manner. Address what is being done and steps you are taking to prevent an incident from happening again.

These tips are a starting point to help before and in the midst of a crisis. Advance work could even prevent a crisis. Do you have a crisis plan that is tested and a team at the ready to move into action? Your reputation, and even lives, depend on it. Get to work on a plan of action (or reach out to us if you need assistance).

Rich has served as a crisis communications counselor and onsite trainer for a number of clients for more than 20 years, working front lines on a variety of incidents including theft, fire, explosion, bomb threat, evacuation, layoff, discrimination suit, union strike, workplace violence, credit card breach, etc.


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