When It Rains, It Doesn’t Have to Pour: How to Manage a Business Crisis Effectively and Come Out Better Than Before

When the news is bad and the stakes are high, it can be the tendency of some corporate spokespeople to hide out and avoid the media.  After all, if you don’t have anything good to say, you shouldn’t speak out at all, right?  Wrong. When a company has shareholders, employees, customers, and partners invested in their success, open communication is essential to averting a damaged reputation.

Even if your company pledges corporate and fiscal responsibility until they’re blue in the face, a crisis can happen to anyone.  Bad things can happen to the best of companies.

A crisis is defined as an event, revelation, allegation, or set of circumstances that threatens the integrity, reputation, or survival of an individual or institution.  Notice the word “allegation.” It’s important to point out that a crisis doesn’t have to be true to cause harm.  It only has to be made public.

As part of a communications team, you’re on the hook in a crisis, regardless of whether the facts are wrong, unknown, or simply rumors.  You have to take control of the messages being put forth regardless of the actual circumstances.  By not taking control, you’re probably creating a secondary crisis.

Secondary Crises
The initial crisis in any business isn’t usually the event that portrays the company in a bad light. It’s most often the company’s ability to anticipate it, react and open the lines of communication that will keep them out of the quicksand of negative publicity.

One of the most infamous secondary crises in business in recent years was the security breach at TJX Companies, the parent company of retail stores TJMaxx, Marshall’s, and HomeGoods.  The breach exposed at least 45.7 million TJX customers to identity fraud. 

One of the most widely reported factors of the security breach wasn’t the specifics of how the information was jeopardized.  It was the timing of when the breach was made public.  Reporters speculated that TJX decision-makers withheld information until after the December holiday season.

Regardless of whether or not the company did this intentionally to save holiday sales, the press was all over it. Coverage of the security breach skyrocketed because of the speculation about the timing.  It’s still too early to gauge the overall impact on their business, but it’s safe to say that many customers were turned off by their seemingly sneaky approach in reporting the crisis. 

Open a newspaper or business magazine on any given day and you’ll find negative stories and speculation about companies that didn’t tell the truth.  Corporations get into more hot water because of lies and cover-ups than mistakes.  Mistakes people forgive.  Lies they cannot tolerate.

A colleague, who once was a consumer reporter, tells the story of a spokesman for GM some years ago, who demonstrated the perfect response to a crisis.  “GM had forgotten to put the lids on ashtrays in a model of Cadillac; dashboards were going up in flames,” she recalls.  She says the spokesperson’s first words in the interview were “What can I say?  Somebody goofed.”  The reporter says it was brilliant.  The spokesperson told the truth, and his honesty was appreciated.  A secondary crisis was averted. 

Telling the truth doesn’t mean telling all.  In advance of any question and answer session, your spokespeople should anticipate questions and prepare appropriate answers.  If you cannot discuss something, it’s perfectly acceptable to explain why you cannot. Privacy and litigation are common reasons.  It’s also acceptable to say you do not know something, if you don’t.  And, you are within your prerogative to explain you cannot discuss something now, but to tell them when you will be able to discuss it.  Handling tough questions with these methods is far better than saying “no comment” or misleading an audience.  

Focus on the Future
Smart spokespeople use future-focus to turn potentially bad press into good publicity for their organizations. Managing an interview by preparing future-focused messages allows you to use the opportunity to potentially create positive word about your company. 

Say for example, that your company is facing rumors of practices that damage the environment.  The company is still struggling to investigate these allegations and doesn’t have concrete facts yet.  Reporters want answers, but your spokespeople don’t know what to say.  

For instance, you prepare your executive or spokespeople with future-focused messages that outline your company’s plans for creating environmental sustainability.  They enthusiastically share timelines for implementing new environmentally-friendly plans with the reporter.  Without directly addressing the rumors, they give the media concrete information they need for their article or piece.  Most of the time, reporters will appreciate that you’re sharing these “secrets” and a negative story is defused.

Future focus also allows you to avoid coming across as defensive or making excuses.  As long as the future plans and strategies are indeed in place, you can turn a crisis into a reputation booster.

Tips for Focusing on the Future

    Don’t dwell on the past or the incident.
    Go to process. Example: refer to an investigation.
    Outline next steps.
    Emphasize shared hopes of parties.
    Provide information on timelines.
    Express look/feel of positive outcomes.

As any communications professional knows, preparation is key to communicating a positive message in a crisis.  Creating a crisis plan and getting everyone on board with it is essential to defusing a crisis when the time comes.  Make sure your company is continuously building relationships with the media and speaking to them often, so they see you as open and trustworthy.  When a crisis comes around, they’ll be less likely to be on the attack. 

This article was written by Suzanne Bates, president and CEO of Bates Communications. A larger version of this article is featured in PR News' 2008 Crisis Management Guidebook. To order a copy, visit http://www.prnewsonline.com/store/12.html.