A crisis is something that happens to the other guy—until it happens to you. One moment, everything is going great and then, without warning, your tidy world is turned upside down: Your customer database gets hacked or an unflattering review about your company goes viral. A fire wipes out your inventory. A customer or employee is seriously injured at your place of business. Or guests at your restaurant come down with an undiagnosed food borne illness.
Whatever the cause, when faced with a crisis, you’ll usually find yourself dealing with intense outside scrutiny at a time when you have little to no information to enable you to formulate an adequate response. You’ll feel a sense of panic as events seem to escalate out of control. And a siege mentality will set in that will further seem to paralyze your response efforts.
Compounding the situation is that we now live in a world defined by a 24-hour news cycle and when anyone’s cell phone can turn them into an instant social media authority about everything, including your crisis.
This reality makes it imperative that not only will you have to manage the crisis operationally, you must simultaneously respond to those, especially in the media, who ask about the situation within the first 30 to 60 minutes of its happening—even though you won’t know the full extent of the problem, who’s to blame, what harm has been done and what will be done to remedy the situation so it doesn’t happen again. In other words, you won’t have answers to the questions most likely to be asked.
It’s best to prepare for the worse with media training well before it happens, so you know how to stay on message and not become a deer in the headlights.
As the person in charge, you should get out in front of the crisis and address the media, not hide behind phrases like “no comment” or act defensively.
But why should you speak when you don’t have any real answers—especially when you have more immediate damage control concerns? The public will make up its mind about your response to the crisis by how well you communicate about it. Those first 30 to 60 minutes are critical and will set the tone for what follows.
At this point, what you need to do is to buy time while you gather the facts and determine the full extent of the problem. Authorities likely will be involved and they may want to manage the information flow after they’ve had an opportunity to investigate.
So to get you through that first critical hour, here are the three key messages you will want to initially convey:
•The safety, security and well-being of our customers and employees are among our highest priorities.
•An emergency/event occurred and we are cooperating fully with the authorities.
•We will provide more information as it becomes available.
The key is to keep it simple—don’t speculate, make damage estimates or provide a probable cause for anything.
For instance, in the case of an outbreak of food poisoning at a restaurant, there’s no way at this early stage to tell if it came from the kitchen or is a virus brought in by a patron. Health authorities would have to do testing and the results might take a month or more to be available. If the police or fire department were involved, all future inquiries could be directed to them to handle, taking the onus off you.
Before you go before the cameras, be well prepared—rehearse if you need to. Have a media game plan in place. What you need to convey is that you are open, cooperative and caring. If there is a victim, you should say something evoking empathy and concern. If any other statement is issued, be sure to vet it with an attorney.
From a communications perspective, your goal during any emergency is to protect and preserve the reputation of your business among its many stakeholders: customers, neighbors, suppliers, local officials, lenders, even the general public. You have an obligation to keep your stakeholders informed and the public has a right to know about any key issues that might affect it.
More importantly, this is your opportunity to tell your side of the story. If you don’t, others will and they may be biased and often uninformed. When mismanaged, a crisis can grow well out of proportion resulting in damage to your business’s reputation, wasteful diversion of your financial resources and possible costly litigation.
June Farrell, a SCORE volunteer, is a former communications executive at Marriott International.