It takes years to establish a solid reputation and just minutes to ruin it.
Much has been written about crisis communications over the years. PR crisis comms. experts have long extolled the virtues of acting swiftly, being contrite, avoiding “no comment,” and other fundamentals. These well-known must dos and must avoids are essential, however there are several other considerations to be aware of today, which we view as vital to protecting and preserving images and reputations.
I’ll use the term “organization,” as these crisis communications principles apply to private, public, and charter schools, institutions of higher learning, nonprofits, and for-profits alike. From experience we know they can make the difference between a minor issue and a catastrophe.
Partner Your Partners
An important and often overlooked step in the crisis communications process is to ensure seamless collaboration between your Crisis Communications Committee, outside PR/crisis comms. counsel (if any), your chief administrators, board representatives, and your legal counsel. While in many instances, members from each of these areas may serve on the Crisis Communications Committee, for smaller scale crises, there’s often a lack of communication, which only leads to confusion and strife.
The key reason for collaboration is because crisis communications experts do not practice law and attorneys are not professional communicators. It’s the fusing and tempering of the two, along with the practical experience of your administrators and board, that creates powerful and effective messaging to mitigate crisis fallout. This marrying of perspectives yields powerful and successful outcomes.
As we know, deadlines are crucial in managing perception and image during a crisis. Therefore, when conducting (scheduled or emergency) calls with the team or appropriate individuals, it’s smart to clearly recap, at the end of meetings, who owns what action steps and the target completion dates/times. Also, be sure to establish in advance your approval and editing protocols and procedures to ensure timely responses. Communication delays inevitably create skepticism and do not broadcast a commitment to transparency; in turn, they can further damage your reputation.
Manage Social Commentary & Online Reputation
Online reputation management, or ORM, utilizes several PR and digital marketing disciplines to move positive content to the top of search engine results. Because the Internet is (still) the Wild West, in 2008 we co-founded an agency that specializes in ORM. We did this because managing perception online is a critical piece of the crisis communications and image preservation puzzle.
When it comes to reactive tactics, perform the following in real time: monitor search engine results; regularly review social commentary; and watch/read online comments and reviews. Knowing what’s being said is a critical step in protecting your reputation.
In addition to these passive steps, we always recommend proactively creating and promoting positive content online. The key is identifying issues quickly – then messaging the person privately to try and move conflict resolution off social platforms, where the damage is magnified.
An organization should also work consistently to dominate Google results for its name, using SEO tactics, online PR, social media marketing, and content marketing, which all work hand in hand to your benefit.
What’s required is an integrated marketing communications strategy and plan. For example, when you have an informative article that you write or a positive story you secure about your organization through earned media, you can share it in the following ways:
- Posting it on your website
- Sharing it via an email marketing campaign to key stakeholders
- Synopsizing it, including a link to the full article, and posting it on your social channels
- Building links to it
- Posting it visually at your physical location/s
- Distributing at in-person stakeholder and community meetings
It is imperative to understand how various marketing communications practices intersect and how to successfully integrate them to successfully protect and promote a brand.
Storytelling & Advocacy Building
Oftentimes, when organizations craft crisis communications scenarios or strategize during a crisis, they do not leverage their champions, allies, and advocates. Many also neglect to advocate for themselves, which is a missed opportunity to strengthen community ties.
Even though there is generally a small group of stakeholders impacted when a particular crisis occurs, social media and community groups can exponentially magnify the issue – as when things “blow up” online. The minority’s opinion can overshadow the majority’s. Perception becomes the new reality.
That’s why it’s important to engage in consistent storytelling. We always say the best defense is a strong offense because the negative consequences resulting from a crisis can be minimized when your stakeholders receive a steady stream of (your) good news. This helps fortify relations with key stakeholders and strengthens your advocate base.
In addition to consistently telling your story, you can leverage advocates who are influential among your key stakeholder groups. They can be the voice of reason and remind key audiences of your positive contributions and attributes, encouraging them to stop the combativeness and take a seat at the table to problem solve together.
Start From Within
We often see board members in schools and key executives (and boards) at nonprofit and for-profit organizations meeting to address significant threats and issues, often obtaining counsel from legal representation. They determine a course of action for communicating externally but often neglect a chief stakeholder group – the internal audience. It oftentimes seems like an afterthought.
When creating a communications platform or cascade for addressing a crisis, start with your staff. This means all those in your employ, in priority order based on their role and responsibilities. This demonstrates transparency, caring, and ethics.
If you do not already have one, be sure to establish a Crisis Communications Committee. This group can help develop the strategy for each crisis scenario and communications that are designed to address them – head on. But be sure to communicate with everyone on the inside before reaching out externally. In a school this includes faculty, staff, administrators, and (often) parents. In business, this entails all managers and team members.
The next group to receive your communiques should be your organization’s “community.” This might entail a school’s parents or parents’ groups, a nonprofit’s foundation partners or key donors, or a company’s customers and or distributors. These individuals and organizations, along with key elected officials and your organization’s advocates and “friends,” comprise your community.
After establishing the communications flow and determining which channels are most effective to reach each of these groups (i.e., in-person or virtual meetings, email communications, internal community newsletters, social channels, etc.), it is imperative to customize key messages for each stakeholder segment to address their primary hot-button issues, concerns, needs, and foreseeable challenges.
Keep It Current & Build It Incrementally
It is critical to not only have a professional crisis plan in place but to update it in real time as trends and issues emerge. Today’s news cycle is driven by polarizing issues that could negatively (or positively) affect your reputation by association if you are caught off guard. Me Too, Black Lives Matter, The March For Our Lives & National School Walkout, Critical Race Theory (which may only be a perceived issue, but nevertheless it’s there), and the list goes on. With help from social media, movements and large-scale public facing issues constantly arise. Ignoring these and hoping they’ll go away is not the solution. Develop communications around them – early on – and use e-newsletters, email campaigns, and social media commentary to express your voice. While you do not have to be controversial or take excessive risks, silence is not the answer in our highly transparent, social society.
Moreover, each organization has vulnerabilities that could at any time explode into a crisis. With your crisis communications committee and, ideally, an expert crisis communications counselor, you can prioritize and flesh out various scenarios and develop communication strategies for each, which you’ll utilize in the event of a crisis.
When building the crisis plan, create just one or two scenarios per month, starting with the issues you are most likely to face. This incremental approach alleviates having to do all the work at once rather than offsetting your normal workload. As you build the plan month by month, secure approvals on all pre-established communiques that correlate to each scenario.
Don’t forget to include social posts in your communication preparation and Q & A documents for challenging media and/or public questions regarding each scenario. It is also worth the investment to media train your spokesperson/s with these tailored messages, which should be done well in advance of a crisis.
All senior-level administrators and communicators have a responsibility to the organizations they serve to think through all potential scenarios that can threaten their reputation. This means preparing for each, in advance, aligning resources to generate the best possible messaging and outcomes, and working to understand each of your stakeholder groups’ views, needs, and fears. Working smart and hard to protect your organization’s reputation is a fight worth fighting. So, plan, align, mobilize, and leverage your advocates to ensure success now and in the future.