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Crisis Communications: How to Best Prepare for those “Uh-Oh!” Moments

Recently, I served on a panel at the Publicity Club of New England’s “An Inside Look at Crisis Communications” program, along with other corporate and crisis communications veterans from the Boston area. We each shared some of our most memorable cases including events involving government funding cuts, infant product recalls, massive layoffs, insider trading, embezzlement, and my favorite of the evening – the potential euthanasia of all the animals at two state-run zoos.

While the cases ran the gamut of companies private and public, from small start-ups to large multinationals, in industries from consumer goods and high tech to pharmaceuticals and law firms, there were some consistent themes that arose from the discussion.

“Somebody’s Watching Me”
Just like that stack of money from the Geico commercials, somebody is watching every move that companies and their employees make today. And more and more frequently they are turning to social media to instantly report their findings and opinions. Social media, however, is not only accelerating the pace that information is being delivered, but is reshaping the entire communications landscape. Just ask Domino’s Pizza about what two of their employees “caught on tape.” 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 in a world of chat boards and 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, etc., 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, as in the case of the zoos when attention finally shifted from the “killing of the animals” to the birth of a baby giraffe.

Jim Buckley

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Strategic Messaging, Crisis Communications, Media Relations, Speaking Engagements, Social Media, Monitoring

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