John Vita is Managing Partner at John Steven Vita Communications. A former CBS-TV News investigative producer, he was provided public relations and brand building to logistics firms, the City of Chicago, the world’s largest accounting firm and a presidential campaign. The views expressed here are those of John Vita and do not necessarily reflect those of FreightWaves or its employees.
Warren Buffet said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”
Just ask Arthur Andersen, recognized for decades as the leading global accounting firm. But a few months after the onset of the Enron crisis, it was essentially out of business. Not because of a legal proceeding or a trial – that would come months later and ironically, clear them of charges – but because of mass client defections driven by reputational damage from negative press coverage.
And while a crisis communications plan cannot guarantee any negative publicity will result from an issue, it can help to manage the situation and minimize the reputational damage.
1) Establish trusted relationships with the press before you need them
One hundred percent of crisis management is the story you tell in your defense. Although social media is an incredibly impactful communications tool, the majority of initial opinion forming is still carried out through traditional news vehicles. These media outlets include established online networks (CNN, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Bloomberg, etc.), print outlets, TV and radio.
Your first step should be to identify journalists at the most influential media outlets that cover your company. Once identified, arrange quarterly or biannual visits by your CEO (ideally, or yourself) to develop relationships with those journalists. The building of an open and honest relationship will help when someone brings questionable accusations against your firm.
2) Prepare likely scenario responses
You may get a call from a journalist who has to file a story quickly and only gives you an hour to respond. But if you have already worked up a reactive media statement on likely scenarios ahead of time, your response will be stronger. A prepared statement will also help avoid internal chaos trying to search for input and approval at the last minute. Also good at this point is to work up any off the record or background information you would use, and identify any third party influencers who could support your situation.
These crisis situations might be a client loss, regulatory action, senior employee departures, etc. These reactive statements can also be edited later to fit the exact situation, but a majority of your work (including approvals) will be done in advance. Remember that the journalist doesn’t have to run your entire reactive statement, so keep it short and make the sentences long.
Lastly, remember that “no comment” is the worst thing you can do. Most journalists need 300 – 500 words to fill out a breaking story. If you don’t give them copy they will most likely fill that void with commentary from a less than friendly source. At the very least, give them a reactive media statement that mirrors the legal department’s defense strategy.
3) Identify your crisis team and spokesperson(s)
Decide who will be part of the crisis team. Likely candidates will be the CEO, Chief Legal Officer, HR Lead and Communications Lead. Try to keep the group smaller, rather than larger.
Your spokesperson will most likely be your CEO. The journalists you have established relationships with will think it odd if that person is nowhere to be found at this time. Plus, employees and clients want to see strong leadership starting at the top.
4) Develop your crisis contact tree
This is a document that can be folded and put in a wallet or handbag, kept on a smart phone or in a secure spot on your intranet. It lists the following key contact information for each member of your crisis team:
- Work, home and mobile phone numbers
- Work and private email addresses
- Home address
- Spouse/partner contact
Also include your outside legal counsel and PR agency information. If you don’t have relationships with either, consider who you would contact during a crisis and make sure there are no competitor conflicts.
At this time, it would be good to set up email distribution groups, look into the possible need for a private collaboration site and/or intranet site dedicated to the crisis issue.
5) Develop early warning systems
You need to work with your legal department to alert you early on to situations that could mushroom into larger reputational problems and hit the press. Lawyers are usually very busy and don’t typically think first about reputational damage. So stop by their office once a month and remind them, asking, “are there any issues bubbling up that could damage our reputation at a later date?”
You should also monitor your reputation online. Use Google’s free news monitoring “alerts” service to track online discussions about your firm. You should also look into a social media monitoring service to check daily for any negative conversations about your firm.
6) Media training
While your CEO should have media training for working with the press, your senior executives also need specialized training for crisis situations. In addition, training reference materials should be available online on your intranet for access whenever needed later.
7) Communicate your crisis policy internally
Make sure all employees are aware of your crisis policy. Use your available internal communication channels to provide updates to all employees and consider running a specific training session and including in all new hire orientation.
Employees should know to never comment to the press on issues, but instead to route requests to designated spokespeople. Likewise, they should also refrain from responding to situations on social media.