In PR, the term “crisis” can mean many different things impacting how to mode a crisis communications plan specific to a client and situation. For some of our clients, it’s a slip in a product shipment date that has been discussed negatively on social media or in the press. For other clients, it can be a death at their place of business or a client-owned venue. Still, others experience a crisis at the hands of hackers, leaked internal documents, a scathing online comment, product recalls or a board of directors’ decision to oust the CEO (to name just a few).
While the cause and severity of the crisis can vary, the preparation and PR team’s internal response should be the same. And companies that have a PR agency on board should expect an organized approach that focuses on preparation, transparency and senior counsel.
It’s not uncommon for clients in the B2B space to have never experienced or considered the idea of a crisis occurring for their company. Often times, B2B clients think of the headlines they see with consumer-facing brands – like the recent Samsung Galaxy Note 7 product recall or the EpiPen pricing debate – and feel they can’t relate. That’s why it’s critical to start discussing the topic of crisis communications at the very beginning of the engagement so that all PR program stakeholders are aware of the variety of things that could go wrong and, at the very least, have a preliminary discussion on policies and protocols for if or when that occurs.
It’s this level of preparation BEFORE anything actually happens that can mean success or failure when a crisis occurs. To prepare for any potential crisis, your PR agency should walk you through a series of questions and develop a crisis communications plan that can be approved and distributed to all necessary parties (including senior executives, legal and PR/marketing). Your crisis plan should include but is not limited to:
- Contact Tree – if a crisis occurs, who should be contacted first? Who should be contacted second and third (hint: your PR agency should be at the very top of this list so it can begin monitoring and helping right away)?
- Monitoring Ownership – a person (or people) should be designated to immediately monitor the situation over social media, the press and customer channels, which will more than likely include your PR agency. The agency should have a standard process across their team on who monitors, how often channels are monitored and how often found information is shared, including to whom and how (email, phone, etc).
- Crisis Group/Message Creation – the crisis comms plan should outline the group of people that will come together to discuss the crisis and devise a specific plan and messages to address the issue. The group of people should be varied and include all stakeholders, including executives, legal, PR and customer relations.
- Approved spokespeople – if a reporter or customer calls, who at the company has the approval to speak on behalf of the company (it’s important to make sure they are media trained and have a set of approved messages before the call)? The crisis communications plan should make it clear that no one outside this list of approved spokespeople should comment via phone, email or social channels.
Responsiveness and Transparency
We’ve all seen the news articles: Company X is unresponsive to an issue or directly denies any knowledge of it occurring. Two weeks later, after much speculation in the media, Company X reveals a major problem that had been known for at least several weeks. Don’t be Company X.
When a crisis occurs, your audience expects transparency. Putting your head in the sand or outright lying will never help in a crisis, no matter how small your company thinks the crisis is and no matter how much you wish it will go away. And your PR agency should always recommend being responsive to the general public, customers, and the media while being as transparent as possible.
This should be a major part of the Crisis Group and Messaging session if/when a crisis occurs. With all the stakeholders together, the group can discuss what has happened, all the information currently available and all the information that it still needs to get. Based on those details and through group discussion, your PR agency should outline:
- The open and honest message for external audiences (again, no lies and no cover-ups) – the message can and should include details about what the company currently knows and what the company plans to do (this should be approved by legal if necessary).
- Details on how the external message will be shared – based upon the crisis itself, the external message might be shared via press release, blog post, social media statement, or through outreach responding to media inquiries. Your PR agency should provide recommendations on the best way to share the message.
- The timing for sharing new information with external audiences – very few companies have all the information upfront when a crisis occurs. The group should have a plan for sharing new information if/when it comes in (and whether that expected timing can be shared externally at the time of the first message)
- Recommendations for external audiences – depending on the crisis, your audience may need to know who to contact or where to go for more information, such as contacting the company, visiting a specific website, or holding for more details.
- Training for the spokesperson if necessary – the PR agency should ensure that the spokesperson is trained to deliver the message and answer questions should he/she receive any.
- Next steps if/when the group assembles – a crisis is rarely over after one meeting. The group should walk away knowing exactly when it plans to talk again.
Companies that are responsive and honest in a crisis recover faster and stronger than those that lie and/or do nothing. Your PR agency should be an advocate for the company, and that includes guiding transparent communication frequently with external audiences during a crisis.
Dealing with a crisis takes experience. Should a crisis occur, your PR agency contact should include a senior member of the team that has handled crisis communications in the past. This person should be an integral and trusted member of the Crisis Group and the lead contact creating the prepared crisis communications plan and crafting the external message.
Many companies don’t expect a crisis to happen, therefore, few are prepared when it does. As a company making an investment with a PR agency, you should expect your team to talk early and often with you about crisis communications, and help guide you through the difficult time so that the brand remains strong.