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Crisis Communications: By the Time You Read This, You’re Too Late

Robert W. Sprague

Imagine you manufacture an iconic backyard barbecue accessory, and you wake up one morning to this headline:  "Tiki torch-wielding white nationalists rally at UVA." Suddenly your TIKI® branded torches have become a symbol of what most of your customers consider a repugnant cause.

This was the situation faced by Lamplight Farms, Inc., supplier of the official TIKI® torch in August 2017.  The company quickly and forcefully responded that they were "not associated in any way" with the organization and "deeply saddened and disappointed."  The response was generally applauded, with one commenter declaring that "…the company that makes tiki torches did a better job of denouncing Nazis than the President of the United States."  However, the company has refused to comment on any dip in sales.

Now imagine you are the CEO of a major airline, and a video of a passenger being dragged roughly off of one of your planes goes viral.  Oscar Munoz, who had one month previously been declared PR News' "U.S. Communicator of the Year" issued a tone-deaf statement that apologized only for "having to re-accommodate these customers."

Public fury—in the U.S. and in China, which represented the original nationality of the passenger—was enough to send United stock tumbling in April 2017, losing nearly a billion dollars in value before recovering.

The speed and unpredictability of events such as these can be terrifying.  That is why, if you are reading this and do not have a robust crisis communications process in place, you are already too late.

PR Crisis

Contributing causes.

Corporations have encountered PR crises for as long as there have been corporations.  Yet, today's reality has left most of them sadly unprepared.

Even a decade ago, risks came primarily from a limited set of mass media muckrakers: investigative journalists at major newspapers, 60 Minutes, and an occasional crusading congressman.  Executives and PR staff had days or weeks to understand, debate, prepare, vet, and distribute a response (not that things were necessarily handled any better).

Today the ability to launch a PR crisis resides in every consumer's pocket or purse.  Via smartphone and social media, a story (real or "fake") will spread at the speed of light.  United's troubles started with the iPhone video posted by a fellow passenger, Audra D. Bridges.

Instead of days or weeks, it's no exaggeration to say that corporations have moments to respond to an unfolding crisis.

Making time.

There is no predicting when a crisis may occur, or what the precise circumstances may be.  There are practical steps your company can take to prepare as best as possible.

Empower a team and keep it small. There is no time to engage a large group of communicators and executives, especially when a media storm erupts overnight or in a different time zone.  There may be no time to track down a vacationing or out-of-pocket CEO. Your company should have a very compact "go team" that is adept, trained, reachable 24x7, and able to release statements and social media responses with or without executive oversight.

Scan the horizon. Make sure you are equipped to get early warning of a social or news media attack on the way.  Today it is possible to create dashboards that track social media mentions and attitudes towards your brand in real time.  The right setup can alert you to a brewing PR crisis within seconds.

PR BriefingExplore the worst-case scenarios. Get your best thinkers in a room and get pessimistic.  Think about the worst possible things that could happen to your company or your brand.  List them out in detail, with all the associated risks and consequences that can be imagined.  It's a depressing but necessary step.

Prewrite the messages. Now formulate a response to each of the disasters you envisioned.  This is the time to try out and test different approaches, and gather supporting facts and research.  You will probably find that certain talking points apply across multiple scenarios. Ideally, gather the reactions of selected consumers or members of the public to your in-case-of-fire-break-glass messaging; better to be surprised now that to make a gaffe in the heat of battle.

Prime the pump with positive stories. The best inoculation for crises is a strong record of proactive media and public relations.  It's much more difficult to get positive press—there may be no "news" in your wins and accomplishments—but it also does not have to be done in response to a viral attack.  By consistently working to engage the media and public in a positive way, you open channels that may be extraordinarily useful on the day that crisis unfolds.

One more thought: It's difficult for company executives and communications staff to do all of this unaided.  Their skills and motivations go to boosting the company and connecting it with friendly customers, and it may be difficult for them to imagine the tables being turned.  You may want to engage outside "veterans"—crisis communications experts who have been through a crisis battle and can share the unvarnished truth.

In any case, get going.  You're already too late.

 

Robert W. Sprague
Robert W. Sprague
President & CEO

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