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Crisis Communications: Preparing for the Unexpected

Sharon Merrill Associates Investor RelationsWhen you do work in crisis communications, you’re often asked to share war stories alongside other communications professionals on conference panels. The cases that are analyzed run the gamut of private and public companies, from small start-ups to large multinationals, in industries from consumer goods and high tech to pharmaceuticals and financial organizations. But there are consistent themes that typically rise from these discussions.

“Somebody’s Watching Me”

In the age of social media, somebody is watching every move that companies and their employees make. And more and more frequently, they are reporting their findings and opinions as fast as Twitter and Facebook will allow. Social media are not only accelerating the pace that information is being delivered but reshaping the entire communications landscape. In today’s crisis situation, anyone and everyone can now add their opinion into the conversation at a moment’s notice. They can introduce unfounded rumors and false information, oftentimes with damaging consequences. Companies now must be hypervigilant in monitoring what’s being said about them in the ever-changing online world. It’s imperative to take advantage of the many tools for social media monitoring now available and to listen in on the conversation that may be brewing about your company.

Follow the Boy Scout Motto

Be prepared. Every organization should have a comprehensive crisis plan, including multiple scenarios. Think about “what keeps you up at night” and various “what ifs.” Expect the unexpected, and then try to prepare for the most devastating possibilities, such as corporate malfeasance, death of top executives, environmental disasters, terrorism attacks or leaks of confidential information.

Don’t Crowd the Kitchen

As the saying goes, too many cooks spoil the broth. Limiting the number of spokespeople in a crisis is critical to success. If too many individuals from your company are talking – which can readily happen on message boards and in social media – you quickly lose control of the message.  At best, your message becomes muddled, and at worst, incorrect or confidential information gets released. Designate a short list of qualified executives to address the media, investors, regulatory officials, the local community and any other stakeholders to ensure appropriate messaging.

The Truth Shall Set You Free

In a crisis, you want to maximize your credibility and resolve the situation quickly. The worst choice any organization can make is to attempt to diminish or cover up an unfavorable situation.  The truth tends to come out eventually, which will only serve to extend and deepen the crisis while destroying an organization’s credibility. Stakeholders appreciate transparency. The best way to defuse a situation is to be forthright and honest about it, which can serve to make today’s crisis yesterday’s news. It also clears the path for more positive announcements.

 Whether a crisis involves corruption, price gauging, product recalls, management dismissals, or a myriad of other potential events you hope never occur, keep these themes in mind – and you just may exit the crisis with your company’s reputation intact. 

Sharon Merrill Associates helps management teams to protect their reputations in times of crisis.  We leverage our deep, collective experience with thousands of crisis engagements to act quickly, objectively and decisively. In the face of a serious threat, our clients have confidence that we will help them navigate the specific and challenging nuances of their crisis.

Maureen Wolff is president and partner at Sharon Merrill. She is a National Investor Relations Institute Fellow, Senior Roundtable Member and Honorary NIRI Boston Director. She is a trusted advisor to CEOs, CFOs and boards of directors on critical communications issues including corporate governance, shareholder activism and proxy contests, CEO succession planning and disclosure issues.

Investor Relations, Crisis Communications, Strategic Messaging

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