When Bad Things Happen to Good Companies

http://nyreport.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=Feature.showFeature&FeatureID=451

from New York Enterprise Report
September Issue

No one wants disaster to occur. But if you are a believer in Murphy’s Law, if it can go wrong it probably will.

By: Chris Rosica

You may have spent years burnishing your company’s good name and reputation. But remember, all that public respect and goodwill can vanish in a flash if the unexpected occurs. By this, we mean the bad unexpected: A significant layoff; a troubled employee who injures others; a customer service breakdown; food poisoning that’s traced back to your restaurant; a CEO scandal or questionable financial matter of any kind. Mistakes that a company makes during this time can sometimes result in the closing of the business.

A case in point: Last June, Thomas the Tank Engine wooden train sets were recalled by the company that has the license to manufacture the products (the Illinois-based RC2), because paint used to decorate the toys for preschoolers was found to contain lead. (The actual Thomas brand is owned by HIT Entertainment). RC2 issued the voluntary recall because the Chinese manufacturer it contracted with admitted to using lead-based paint. Despite the fact that they had the most to lose, HIT referred the media to RC2 for a statement. RC2 issued a press release and refused all further interviews.

These clumsy actions left parents angry and media analysts shaking their heads. The inability of either company to take full responsibility and communicate quickly to try to correct the situation flies in the face of crisis communications planning, and serves as a case study on how NOT to handle such a situation.

Even small businesses need to properly prepare for a crisis so they can deal with the media in a positive and truthful manner. Remember: The press will write about an unflattering situation whether or not you participate.

Here are a few important rules that should be part of any crisis plan, along with the most obvious one: do this before the trouble starts.

Designate a spokesperson: This person is usually a public relations person (either from the company or the outside) who is comfortable speaking in front of the press, can speak without resorting to jargon and can answer questions (even difficult ones) in a manner that is genuine and compassionate while following talking points and keeping it simple. We recommend media training to at least two company executives and making certain all bases are covered. Your firm may need a spokesperson, for example, at more than one location: regardless, having a backup spokesperson is always wise.

Establish valuable communications principles: These are your goals for what you want to communicate to your various audiences. In priority order, they are: A. Take care of those most affected; B. brief employees; C. brief the press; D. reassure all audiences that you are acting in their best interests; E. remain open and accessible; F. provide information as fast as possible; and G. keep no secrets from the media or your public.

Establish media notification procedures: List all media contacts in the geographic areas where you do business, including names, titles, phone and fax numbers and e-mail addresses. Keep the lists current. You will want to be able to reach these individuals within minutes. We also recommend that a company consider keeping a “dark site,” a website that remains “dark” and is made live only when needed to handle crisis communications. Such websites can help keep information flowing without overloading a company’s existing website.

Conduct a vulnerability audit: Interview top managers and survey supervisors to catalog potential crises. If you are in the restaurant business, for example, you might list a few possible “worst-case scenarios:” Food poisoning, poor health department rating, etc. Critique existing plans, if any, to deal with them. Discuss past crises and what happened. Prioritize your vulnerabilities and how to react to them.

Establish internal/external communications mechanisms: Formulate phone trees for contacting all company personnel, clients, authorities and emergency personnel. Once a crisis is established, information dissemination must begin promptly and the facts made available to all parties, both inside and outside the company.

Practice makes perfect: A crisis plan should be a workable document. Seasonal meetings, yearly drills, periodic plan reviews and practical reminders will keep it current.

No one wants disaster to occur. But if you are a believer in Murphy’s Law, if it can go wrong it probably will. It certainly makes sense to establish best practices as they apply to all areas of a business — including crisis communications. When bad things happen to good companies, you’ll be more than ready.

Public Relations Contact: Rosica Strategic Public Relations

ros_admin