Imagining the worst, gleaning the best

Tragedies happen every day in life. Wildfires rage, executives resign, planes crash, food is contaminated and money is extorted. In the business world, tragedy is defined as a crisis – a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events (for better or for worse) is determined.

According to Wendy Lane Stevens, president of Portland-based Lane PR, properly managing such crises vastly improves a company’s chances of emerging from any debacle on the better end of things.

“It’s a very dynamic environment,” Stevens said. “If you’re not prepared to get your message out correctly and quickly, it may be very detrimental to your company name or your ability to do business.”

To prevent or lessen the impact these threats can inflict on an organization and its stakeholders, a company should research and implement proper crisis management techniques.

Pre-crisis: Prepare and practice

Preparation starts in creating a crisis management plan, selecting and training a crisis management team. Stevens said her firm offers an inexpensive crisis management plan that starts by preparing for the worst, and works toward winning the trust of stakeholders through strategic communication.

“What companies don’t remember, especially in a crisis, is that their target audiences go beyond customers,” Stevens said. “It’s their employees, vendors, investors and public officials.”

These audiences can be delegated to members of the crisis team, as well as other pre-assigned tasks and responsibilities, which all vary depending on the size of the company and their crisis needs. Generally speaking, teams incorporate public relations, legal, security, operations, finance and sometimes human resources. But the need for an appointed spokesperson is always mandatory.

With a plan and team in place, practice should be scheduled because success comes through effectively implementing the plan. Kim Kapp, spokeswoman for the Vancouver Police Department, said the department trains and exercises regularly to teach and test crisis management strategies.

“Police work is almost always reactive, but we do train extensively for specific hypothetical situations in order to exercise for a kind of muscle memory reaction,” Kapp said. “Every situation is very unique, but certain situations can lend themselves to somewhat similar plans.”

As Kapp hinted, crisis management plans are reference tools, not blueprints. They compile important contact information, hypothetical how-to guides and proper forms for documentation. The goal, according to Stevens, is to remove the need of asking “what next,” and allowing a company to focus on the crisis at hand.

Tom HuntCrisis response: Quick, accurate and consistent

Tom Hunt, president of Hunt Communications in Vancouver, said crisis response is highly dependent upon public relations. While certain personnel aren’t the spokespeople, they are tasked with identifying target audiences, managing multi-channel communications and in providing training and support.

Behind the scenes, they’re developing the public response, which focuses on being quick, accurate and consistent. A quick response is necessary to reduce the vacuum of fear. By broadcasting the key points management wants to convey about a crisis, it satisfies the media and public interests. Additionally, it shows the public that the organization is in control and begins establishing a sense of credibility.

“It’s the media’s job to cover news, so if you don’t communicate others will,” Hunt said. “You want to be the person or organization that has the knowledge and is controlling the flow of knowledge.”

Consistency and accuracy also support the credibility of a message, but through different techniques. Good examples of consistency include coordinating and collaborating with other credible sources, satisfying media needs, and maintaining connectivity and accessibility.

Accuracy, on the other hand, should apply to every message. According to Hunt, unclear messages and factual discrepancies overrule the need for a quick response. He said, the “no comment” approach is not an option, and prefers to explain why the information isn’t currently available.

“You can’t speculate about what might have occurred,” Hunt said. “Avoid conjecture; deal with what is known, and what actions are being taken to correct the situation.”

The first step to correct the situation is empathy – showing concern for any victims and the public safety. Next in line is discussing the future, and what the reconciliation will entail. How a company addresses these elements directly affects their public reputation.

“Often times, making the right moral decision is the best from a marketing standpoint too,” Hunt said.

Post-crisis: Recap & repair

Once the cameras leave, compensation is distributed and business operations resume, a company should recap their effectiveness, gauging what they accomplished well and what needs work. This evaluation should directly address strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in an attempt to fine-tune the crisis management plan and team.

Most important though, is the state of a company’s reputation.

“How you respond during a crisis is probably more important and memorable than the crisis itself,” Hunt said, “because the way your organization responds to [crisis] reflects your style of management and your ability to find a solution.”

Public opinion is difficult to mitigate, but there are tested ways to repair reputation. Among other things, an organization can minimize the perceived damage, praise stakeholders for their actions or emphasize past successes and good deeds.

“Once a crisis has passed, I think companies need to keep going with a lot of goodwill to the community,” Stevens said. “Use a lot of positive messages and avoid revisiting the situation.”

Stevens explained that business wants to revisit a troubled past – it’s similar in having to imagine impending doom. Negative situations bring on denial and discomfort, but crisis doesn’t discriminate. Stevens said a small business dealing with an onsite death could be the equivalent of an airline company faced with a plane crash.

To stay viable it has become a necessity to plan for the worst, in hopes of the best. It’s why virtually all of Stevens’ clients are interested in crisis management services.

“Public relations and crisis communications has evolved to a point where companies
do understand the risks and are, by and large, willing to invest in the peace of mind,” she said.