Crisis communications strategies

09/04/2024 14:52:03

Preparing for and coping in a crisis

Corporate history is littered with memorable crises which have tarnished the reputations of some of the biggest brand names.  For example, food retailer Pret a Manger suffered a serious reputation disaster following the death of 15-year-old who died after eating one of their sandwiches. Also, an off the cuff question from a BBC reporter about pay and bonuses, sparked a full-blown PR crisis at house builder, Persimmon.

For most SMEs, the scandals that hit the national and international headlines may seem a distant cry from the everyday realities of running a private enterprise in tough times. But smaller businesses aren’t immune from crises. While the reputational challenges you face may be smaller in scale than those of the big corporates, the negative impact on your worlds may be no less catastrophic, proportionately speaking.

A crisis couldn’t possibly happen here 

Yes it could – and it is pretty certain that at some stage in your business life, to some degree, it will. The sooner you grasp that and do something about it, the better.  The boy scouts got it right – be prepared.  To do otherwise is to bury your head in the sand, and that is never, ever, a good solution.

So, what is a PR crisis?

In PR terms, a crisis is simply something which potentially risks damaging your reputation and which in turn will have a detrimental impact on your ability to thrive.

It might be something of your own making – a faulty batch of products, a badly judged property development proposal, noisy lorries leaving the factory and causing neighbours to protest, a piece of news badly delivered.

It may be something where you are the victim of malice or the incompetence of others – a social media complaint about your products or services, a disgruntled ex-employee taking you to a tribunal and going public on their grievances, someone tampering with your products or a colleague behaving unethically.

It may be just misfortune – a subcontractor going bust and leaving you to pick up the pieces when you let your customers down as a result. That’s before we even start to think about the risks to all aspects of your business such as a data breach,  a fire, or a mechanical failure in your factory. What about if a key client-facing colleague hurriedly leaves the business through accident, illness or by design?
There may be trouble ahead
A crisis may even result from simply handling everyday issues badly. Redundancies for example, are not a crisis in themselves – they may well be a vital function of a business’ long-term future survival and success.  Badly managed or badly communicated, they can spell crisis.

These examples are just for starters, and they could all happen to you.  The best service you can do your business is to be prepared by creating a crisis communications strategy.

You audit your finances – now audit your risks

Each year businesses audit their finances to ensure they are in good shape.

Do the same with your reputational risks.  

When was the last time you sat down as a management team to assess what might go wrong and, more importantly, what you would do if anything did?  When did you go through a “what if” scenario and frighten yourself with the possible outcomes?

Truth is, you can’t predict or pre-practice every crisis eventuality, but the very exercise of thinking what can go wrong and how well equipped you are to deal with it, will stand you in better stead when the inevitable happens.

Better still, get someone from outside the organisation to lead you on that journey.
Failing to plan is planning to fail

The best solution to a crisis is to avoid the problem

By auditing, you will highlight what risks can be pre-managed.  Do it right and you will see where the vulnerabilities in your organisation lie, and you will be on the way to minimising them and creating a successful crisis communications strategy

Managing reputation?  I’ll be too busy dealing with the crisis itself!

Yes – it’s a lot to expect. You have to manage the immediate consequences of the crisis, to keep the business running, but at the same time, while that adds to the pressure of your day job, you have to think strategically and practically how to manage the reputational damage which the incident threatens to cast over your business.  At its heart is effective communication - and that’s a specialist skill for which you may need help.

Hopefully, having audited the risks, you’ve done that preparation; you have the mechanisms in place to deal with it 
•    a briefed and attuned senior management team, 
•    a team with the right expertise to deal with the cause of the problem, 
•    a dedicated comms team, 
•    a briefed and media trained spokesperson, 
•    a database of key stakeholders and an indication of their specific interests in relation to the business so you can talk to each group in terms that are meaningful to them.

Then you can consider the complete crisis communications strategy.

•    Assess – what has happened. Quickly work out who it affects and how it affects them so you can prioritise responses and briefings.
•    Are you victim or perpetrator?
•    Who knows what so far, and who else needs to know?
•    Step into the other person’s shoes. What do they think/fear?
•    What do they need to know?
•    Who’s going to tell them? How?
•    Think through the ‘what if?’ scenarios and put plans into action.
•    Think through the risks of social media – when do I engage and when don’t I?

That’s just for starters…

If you have good links with the media and with other stakeholders – customers, staff, suppliers, the industry in which you work - and you have a reputation for being open and honest with them, you will get a more sympathetic hearing. It’s back to the message that how well you come out of a crisis depends on how well prepared you are when you go into it. More often than not, that involves having a long-term positive reputation management programme in place via which your business has amassed enough good-will to help you through when things go wrong.

When you have the day job to do, it makes sense to seek professional help here too, not to take the responsibility for reputation management from you, but to help you manage it more effectively.

And in the aftermath of a crisis…

Businesses are judged not on whether they get into difficulty, but how they handle getting out of it. Continually, actively and positively managing communications after the event is the very best way to ensure that your reputation suffers no lasting damage.
Keep calm

How we can help: before, during and after a crisis

Here at Partners, we have more than 35 years’ experience of helping companies to prepare for and cope in a crisis.  From deaths on building sites, redundancy announcements and site closures to product recalls, environmental disasters and staff pranks that have gone wrong.
We provide: 
  • Crisis communications strategies
  • Media training
  • 24/7/365 telephone and email “on call” support 
  • Support when a crisis hits
  • Post crisis – we will help you to repair a bad reputation
  • Ongoing PR to build a reputation and keep it protected 
Contact us today