Crisis Communication Prevention
Despite the risk that many types of companies face, the majority of businesses can prevent a media crisis by taking the time to look critically at their operations. By regularly assessing vulnerabilities, most companies are able to fix potential problems before they attract negative media attention.
Some of the most vulnerable businesses are drifting on a false sense of security that media crises are something that only happen to someone else.
We’ve worked with several well-managed, successful companies who suddenly find themselves page one news due to an unintentional employee error or an event outside the company’s control. Negative publicity can be the death knell for some companies, especially when strong competition exists.
Competitors are only too willing to step in and take care of a wounded company’s customers or clients after a negative incident has weakened its credibility or marred its safety record.
When it’s too late for prevention, however, dealing with the issue head-on is critical. A company in crisis must respond effectively to media inquiries or risk being branded as guilty. Incredibly, there are still business executives and their legal advisers who decide that media avoidance is the safest strategy. Such a passive approach allows the media to define the company’s reputation, often erroneously.
Lack of communication only serves to reinforce the public and media’s belief in the allegations, whatever they might be and no matter how far-fetched.
An implausible story suddenly takes on considerable credence when the organization refuses to comment or the paper is able to write, “CEO John Doe did not return several phone calls,” or “President Jane Smith was unavailable for comment.”
Communicating throughout an organizational crisis unfortunately is not a science, but an art, in which experience and understanding of the potential for harm to the organization and appropriate action help bring about more positive outcomes. A crisis plan includes more than simply identifying and training the organization’s spokesperson. Think of it as an emergency response drill. The pressure, stress and shock of a media crisis make clear thinking difficult and allow little time to present a credible response.
Television cameras arrive with little warning and are not easily turned away. Print reporters are relentless when they smell scandal or cover-ups.
With no preparation, those on the firing line can easily and inadvertently make unfortunate statements. The long-term reputation of the organization will survive, be tarnished or be demolished not only based on what the media report, but also through perceptions drawn from other credible sources the media are able to unearth.
Figure out what issues or actions could cause your organization to make headlines and take steps now to prepare and prevent. Make necessary changes in areas of vulnerability. Verify assumptions regarding product integrity, community concerns, employee conduct and make corrections. Bring in an outside expert to help identify and prepare for the worst case scenarios.
In other words, the best way to avoid a media crisis starring your company is to anticipate what could happen and use hindsight to put things right.
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Barbara Lezotte, APR is the president and founder of Lezotte Miller Public Relations Inc., a consulting firm specializing in communication for education, healthcare, economic development and environmental issues in Michigan since 1995.