In times of crisis, your reputation is the easiest thing to lose and the hardest thing to replace. So when preparing a crisis plan and running emergency drills, you should understandably be focused on logistical and operational response. And you should, of course, always be concerned with public safety issues, legal liabilities, insurance payouts and possible regulatory intervention.
But who has communications covered? Are they equipped to handle it? Have they made the right preparations? Do they have access to appropriate resources? Now is a good time to ask these questions rather than waiting for the next hurricane, fire, environmental spill or product tampering scandal.
With the combination of cable news and the Internet added to the traditional print and broadcast media, organizations have never been under more scrutiny in times of stress.
The key to getting it right is preparation--half of the impact of your efforts to manage an evolving crisis comes from the work you do before you ever have a problem. The following tips should help guide your efforts to protect your reputation when catastrophe strikes:
Be proactive. Assume the worst-case planning position. Map out and anticipate everything that could possibly go wrong. Identify people and their alternates who will deal with the media, wherever in the world that a problem could arise. Design predrafted statements that can easily be updated whenever it becomes necessary.
One voice, one message. In your practice drills, ensure that every one understands the process for dealing with the media and who is empowered to give statements. The same goes for internal communications with employees. You cannot have people giving ad hoc comments to reporters based on what may be faulty or only partially true information.
Candor and completeness. Within prudent legal counsel, never avoid responsibility, and always interpret responsibility broadly.
Be factual. You need to be sure of all of the relevant facts before making any statements, especially those that acknowledge the fault of the company. Never guess: Have systems for gathering and checking facts. The media will want to know what happened, why it happened and what you are going to do to make sure it does not happen again.
Identify key messages. Even in the stress of a high-pressure situation, there will be one or two things that you really want to get across. Make sure to identify those messages and designate a trained spokesperson who can respond to and work with the media.
Regular updates. You will need to create systems and processes to collect information as the event unfolds. You will also need to test them beforehand. This is so that you can be in a position to issue regular updates not only to the media but also to employees, families, regulators and others who have a stake in the outcome.
Know your allies. Build friends and third-party advocates before you need them. Identify the allies you would like to have if you were facing a crisis, people who might be willing to help and defend you. This might be media, but it might also include academics, analysts, industry associations or even competitors. Ask yourself, "Why would they support us?"
Do not try to manipulate the media. Resist the urge to be combative with the media. They are only doing their job. Ensure that your organization has an understanding of the media's purpose. It is their job to expose those accountable for what happened, but they can also be your pulpit to explain your position to all interested parties.
Avoid "No comment." Never make this statement. No matter what your intentions or your situation may be, "no comment" will always sound defensive and evasive. And it means you are missing the opportunity to explain and communicate your key messages.
Crisis generates change. If something does go wrong on your watch, embrace the opportunity to learn, understand what happened, accept responsibility and make sure that it never takes place again in your organization. In fact, embrace the opportunity to set standards higher than anyone else in your industry.