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Keep calm and communicate

January, 2013

As a team of PR experts and former journalists, Maxim has many years’ experience working with clients to promote their good news. However, companies also need to prepare for the prospect of an event, no matter how slim, which could damage their hard earned reputation.

Here are 10 issues to consider when it comes to managing a crisis:

1. Being unprepared is no excuse

While companies may spend a small fortune on developing a positive brand image, it can all be for nought if they are caught unprepared when a crisis hits. You’d be amazed at how many companies are totally unprepared to deal with a real crisis, very few have developed and practised a plan. It’s frequently on the to do list, but that’s too late if a crisis suddenly arrives.

With the 24/7 news cycle and voracious speed of social media, a firm’s longstanding respect can be seriously undermined in a matter of hours, rather than days.

2. You know the threats – be prepared

It shouldn't take a firm’s management team long to identify the top five threats their company faces. Once you know them, consider how you would respond and, importantly, how you would manage the media. Successful crisis management is all about the speed and appropriateness of your reaction.

We recommend having a series of pre-prepared statements on file, allowing you to fill in the blanks, get rapid approval and therefore deliver a faster response. Developing standby statements and considering the key messages regarding the top five threats shouldn't take more than a day, and should be a priority.

3. Know the answers before you get asked the question

Knowing the risks is just part of the battle, preparing for the questioning is the next stage. The first step in getting ready for any crisis is identifying your worst nightmare questions and, more importantly, preparing the answers.

4. Take early advice

Many managers would accept that they are often too close to a situation and the prospect of a crisis occurring could colour their judgment. Before a crisis strikes, and as part of the planning, many companies would benefit from taking outside, impartial advice.

The person doesn't need to be an industry expert, although some knowledge is useful, but they do need communications experience. An independent advisor, unfettered by internal politics, is able to consider the potential threats without bias, and provide clear counsel to the senior management team.

5. Be media confident

Few people are naturals when it comes to doing media interviews, most get tongue tied, panic, some even physically sick. The answer is media training and practice, and the understanding that fundamentally you know more about your business than any journalist who’s asking the questions.

6. The rule of three

At the heart of successful crisis management is the rule of three, especially when it comes to key messages during the first 24-48 hours. Every interview should seek to communicate three core messages. Firstly, reassure: ‘We have a plan and are dealing with the situation’. Secondly, recognise and respect: ‘Our thoughts are with those affected (whether killed, hurt or inconvenienced)’. And thirdly, respond: demonstrate that you are investigating the causes of the incident to ensure it’s not repeated.

However, words will count for nothing if the subsequent action doesn't reflect what’s been said. Inaction will further tarnish a reputation already under pressure.

7. Recognise the importance of public opinion

Depending on the crisis, it is likely that lawyers may be involved. At the heart of many decisions will be the management’s need to balance their legal obligations against the reaction from the public, when it comes to considering the likely impact it could have long term on the company and the value of its brand.

Winning in court could be a Pyrrhic victory if the public’s perception of the company is one of guilt and mistrust. And remember, legal wheels turn much slower than those on the media bandwagon and public opinion.

8. Silence isn’t golden

The ‘head in the sand, hope it’ll all go away’ approach rarely, if ever, works. Traditionally it was the first 48 hours of any crisis that were crucial, increasingly it is now the first few hours that are critical, thanks to the ubiquitous internet. If the company fails to respond officially the news vacuum is filled by rumour and misinformation, exacerbating the scale of the situation for the comms team. When it comes to communicating, too much is far better than too little but make sure the comms are focused.

9. Keep calm and carry on communicating

In the middle of a crisis there’s a tendency for everyone to want to get involved. Having a plan in place with everybody’s role agreed, and key messages signed-off, avoids duplication of effort and keeps everybody focused on their responsibilities.

Make sure the team is practised as this ensures fewer mistakes and better execution when the big day comes. Each company needs a trained and articulate spokesperson to represent the organisation with the media. Equally, there needs to be someone who directs the campaign, stands backs and oversees what’s happening, and who can regroup if required. But whatever happens – keep communicating.

10. Every cloud

While not always evident at the time, many crises do present an opportunity. Often the scale of the opportunity is determined by the professionalism of the response to the initial crisis. Before the dust settles, the company’s management should be asking themselves: ‘What do we need to do to ensure we protect our business’ reputation long term?’. That’s the next challenge, and while not without its risks, going on a marketing offensive to win over hearts and minds is often the best form of defence.

If you want to find out more about Maxim’s approach to crisis management call 01892 513033.

Andrew Metcalf - Director

Andrew Metcalf

Maxim / Managing Director

posted in: advice, media relations, public relations, reputation management,

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