When Client Communications Become Crisis Communications

September 9th, 2017 | Posted in How To Grow, Uncategorized

Any situation that is threatening or could threaten to harm people or property, seriously interrupt business, significantly damage reputation and/or negatively impact the bottom line.

Developing a Strategy for the Unexpected

Businesses spend thousands on everything from research and development to sales strategies and marketing plans.  While cultivating clients, managing social media and buying advertising is necessary, there is one equally important area many companies seem to forget – crisis communications.   Whether this is because management just does not want to deal with a crisis until it happens, or because they do not foresee any public relations issues with their business/brand, failing to develop a crisis communications plan can be a company’s greatest threat.

Do you remember the Tylenol drug tampering crisis?  Those of you old enough to remember it probably had forgotten about it until now.  And, those of you who are younger may not realize that back in the 1982, this popular brand of over-the-counter medication was the subject of a horrible event dubbed the “Chicago Tylenol Murders”. A number of poisoning deaths in Chicago were attributed to the victims taking Tylenol, which had been laced with potassium cyanide by an outside source.  This crisis not only took Chicago by storm, but also shocked the world.  The fact that this atrocity did not destroy the Tylenol brand and has now become a distant memory is likely related to how the company handled the crisis.

Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Tylenol, faced the crisis head on by immediately alerting the public to stop using their product until the extent and source of the tampering could be identified. They took further steps to remove the product from store shelves and cease production. Although the company experienced a temporary set-back in sales, they scored big in the area of consumer confidence.  Thus, the brand is still thriving today, while the incident has become a model for corporate crisis communications planning.  In a nutshell, what restored consumer’s faith in the product was the fact that Johnson & Johnson did not immediately place “blame” on the culprits and portray themselves as victims; instead, they worked with authorities to help ensure public safety.  The Department of Defense has prepared an interesting analysis and case study of the crisis if you are interested in learning more.

There is much to be learned about how Johnson & Johnson handled this tragic event.  Having a plan to address the unexpected is vital to the longevity of your brand.  Even “squeaky-clean” companies can fall victim to unforeseen public relations nightmares. Situations which can occur in any company include:

  • Disgruntled employee spreading false rumors
  • Social media attack campaign
  • Sexual harassment claims
  • Accident involving and employee or customer
  • Hacking or stealing of customer information
  • Workplace violence
  • Wrongful termination lawsuit
  • Frivolous lawsuits

If your business is located in an earthquake or hurricane zone, you would have a disaster plan, correct?Having a crisis communications plan is equally important to protect your company and ensure its survival.

If you do not have a crisis communications plan, you are in luck as we are going to discuss some basic plan elements.  And, if your business has a plan, kudos to you! Feel free to use the following section to review your crisis communications plan elements and make adjustments if necessary.

Establish a Core Crisis Communications Team

A crisis communications team should be identified.  This core team can be comprised of various staff from throughout your company or organization.  Your company president, public relations director, legal advisor and human resources director should all be part of this team.  Other members may include department directors, supervisors and employee relations managers.  Try to identify staff from a cross section of employees.  Depending on the size of your company, an ideal core team is usually made up of 5-10 employees.  This team must be willing to drop everything on a moment’s notice and jump into action. Prompt response, investigation, and action are critical in any crisis.  If someone is not willing to work 24/7, then they are not good candidates for this assignment.

Identify a Spokesperson

All information concerning the crisis should be communicated through one official spokesperson.  This person should be confident and trained in how to handle media as he or she will likely be in front of cameras and answering questions at press conferences. The spokesperson should also be someone who appears reliable and trustworthy.He or she should be the only person providing information to the media and public about the event. All calls and inquiries should be directed to the spokesperson, and he or she must be accessible to media 24/7.

Develop Strategy for Internal Communications

Key messaging about the situation is imperative to help decrease rumors and misconceptions.  The crisis communications team needs to communicate – sooner than later – important information to the employees and board members as soon as possible.  Depending on the situation, this could be very sensitive, so the expertise of human relations, public relations and legal staff will most certainly come in handy. Who, what and how information is disseminated to staff needs to be determined.  Staff and board members should also be instructed not to discuss the situation with the public or media and to direct any inquires to the spokesperson.

Develop Strategy for External / Stakeholder / Customer / Client Communications

Your customers and stakeholders will need to be kept in the loop as well.  You will need to identify readily available means to communicate with them, whether it be through e-mail, e-newsletter or personal contact.  The crisis communications team will need to develop an official statement as well as possible questions from customers so responses can be thought through and prepared.

Practice Your Plan!

No company can anticipate every crisis.  However, you can examine your business unit and others like yours to determine issues most likely to occur. Conducting a “mock” situation with your crisis communications team can help you be better prepared in the event of an emergency. Where will the team meet to discuss and strategize?  How will each team member address his or her assigned duties?  Will the assigned team be able to work well together? Think of this is a sort of “fire drill”.  Understanding and practicing what to do in the event of a crisis is critical to helping ensure proper handling of the situation.

Having a crisis communications plan is the first step in being prepared for a sensitive situation. Remember, honesty tends to win out in the end. If you try to cover something up or are not truthful, it will show.  In most cases, a consumer can forgive a company who makes a mistake and owns up to it.  The public tends to have a more difficult time when they feel deceived.

If you do not have full time human resources, public relations and legal staff, consider outsourcing these individuals during a crisis.  Identifying and retaining experts in the event of a crisis can also be helpful.  And, since Social Media has evolved into a a major form of communication, consider having an expert help with the management and monitoring of social channels. As with any disaster, preparedness is key to ensuring the survival and sustainability of your company.  Good luck!