Last time I wrote about Public Relations for Beginners (i.e. small organization with little or no budget). Prior to that, a guest blogger wrote a post about social media marketing for authors. Today, I am presenting to you what I am calling Crisis Communications for Beginners. There are millions of crises happening in the world, some big and some small. Although no two crises are the same, the way in which they are dealt with have some basic fundamentals in common.
Imagine you are the Public Relations Manager for a small company, let’s say a locally owned and operated convenient store. You have five stores in the area and have a loyal and growing customer base. The reason you’re growing is because you use only local products. Your milk is comes directly from a farm 10 minutes north of your headquarters. Your eggs come from another chicken ranch to the south of the city. All of your fruits and vegetables are local. Baked goods are made at headquarters, etc. Aside from grown and made local, you treat your employees well, and have great relations with the community. In fact, your relations are so good, there is a petition to open a new store in a neighboring community.
Here’s the crisis: Your customer service team has received calls from five customers who claim they have gotten sick after eating one of your products. There is already protocol for how to handle customer complaints and commendations, so you have all the necessary information about the customer. Remember, if this is handled incorrectly, it could spell doom for your company.
1. The first thing you want to do, as the PR Manager, is to speak directly to the head of your company immediately. In any crisis, speaking with the company head is a must before any contact with the press can be made. You must be forceful and stand your ground. Remember, the head of the company may only be looking at the bottom line, it is your responsibility to look at the bigger picture. How will this affect the company? What can you do to minimize the damage, help those affected and rescue the image of the company?
2. At the meeting, go over what is known about the problem: In general terms answer the five “W’s:” Who? What? Where? When? Why? In any crisis, you want to answer as many questions as possible and have as much information on the table. The more you know, the better you can devise your plan. There is a right way and a wrong way to handle a crisis. The gold standard to correctly handling any crisis is the Tylenol Cyanide Tampering in 1982. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Penn State and how the university handled the Jerry Sandusky pedophilia scandal.
3. Regardless of the type of crisis, you want to make contact with those affected first. Find out how they are doing, offer medical assistance, Let those customers know you care about them. Also, remove the product from the shelves and send it for testing.
4. After you have triaged the problem and put in place your own internal crisis plan, you can go to the press. Send out your press release. Call for a press conference. Inform your employees of what is happening. The more information your associates know, the better they will be at assisting customers who contact the company with complaints and questions. You want the process to be transparent. Be open and forthcoming with information. Remember, the cover-up is usually worse than the crime; Anthony Weiner, Major League Baseball, and Monica Lewinsky
5. At the press conference there should be at least two speakers; you, the PR manager and the company head. However, make sure that the head of the organization is ready for the press scrutiny. Will he or she make a good speaker? If not, have him or her read a statement and refer all questions to a third person or yourself. The trick to the press conference is to relay your message. Stay on message and answer all questions. Never say “I don’t know.” Instead, say “I will find out.” Do not spin. Reporters can smell spin a mile away. The best thing you, the PR Manager, can do is to keep in contact with the press. As soon as you have more information, you will relay it to them.
6. To admit or not admit fault, that is the question? This is a tricky question to answer. Remember, you are looking out for the best interests of the company and its customers. Yet, if you admit fault, it could come back and haunt you, should there be legal action. Instead of admitting fault right off the bat, apologize to your customers. Assure the public there is an investigation going on as how come this happened. You cannot admit fault until all the facts are known. But, apologizing for the problem shows the customers and public you care. Offering refunds or assistance with medical bills which are a result of the crisis is a great way to earn respect and keep the public on your side.
7. Finally, once results of the internal investigation are known, release those results to the press. Hold another press conference to announce such results. This is where you should highlight what is being done to prevent this event from happening again. What steps the company is taking to ensure quality control will be of utmost importance to your public. What are you new quality control standards? Did you have to break a contract with a supplier and who is the new supplier? Also, acknowledge those who helped keep the crisis under control. This is a great way to boost employee morale. Introduce the customer service representative who first noticed the problem. Have those who were sick at the press conference so they can speak to the media.
These are just some basics when handling a crisis. Of course each crisis is different and depending on the circumstances this outline may change a bit. The biggest thing to remember during a crisis is to stay engaged with your public. Next week, I’ll be looking at using social media and breaking down different outlets and their best uses.