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Crisis Communication Management

Originally posted on http://www.libertydirections.com

From cruise ships running aground to negative rumors going viral, all types of crises represent a reputation management risk every company must be equipped to handle. Liberty Directions spoke with Peter Mancusi, executive vice president at Weber Shandwick, one of the world’s leading public relations firms, about what every company can do to prepare before disaster hits.

Liberty Directions: How can companies prepare to respond to crises?

Peter Mancusi: More than ever, companies need to develop a culture of preparedness. By that I mean they need to put into place a crisis management infrastructure so they can respond quickly and effectively when they face a situation that threatens their reputation. Too many times companies have no response plan and lose valuable time trying to figure out how to get key people together and make decisions on what they should do.

LD: What are the first steps you advise a client to take in a crisis?

PM: It depends on the crisis. In matters involving a product recall or consumer issue, the best response may be simply to acknowledge the problem and pledge to fix it. If the matter involves a controversial decision or issue, you obviously will have to think carefully about what to say, but often the best course is to be as transparent as possible and explain your position.

LD: What are some common mistakes companies make in responding to crises?

PM: One is failing to end the crisis as quickly as possible. We ask clients, “Do you want to win the argument or end the argument?” Often the response is, “Win.” But the goal should be to get out of the spotlight as soon as you can. Many times companies and individuals do exactly the opposite and end up feeding controversies.

Other common mistakes are failing to manage expectations or blaming others for problems before all the facts are known. In the early days of the Gulf oil spill, BP kept revising upward its estimate of the size of the spill, which cost the company credibility. Toyota came under heavy criticism for suggesting drivers were responsible for the unintended acceleration of their cars in fatal accidents, and its CEO was compelled to appear before a Congressional panel to apologize.

One more: Failing to get out difficult information yourself, all at once, and engaging instead in rolling disclosure (which may tell only part of the story). A sure way to keep a controversy alive.

LD: If you’re still trying to assess the crisis but feel pressured to make a statement, what should you do?

PM: Whether you’re being pressured for a statement or not, it is important to appear in the initial coverage of a crisis. Again, in a product safety or consumer scenario, a brief statement that acknowledges what happened and what steps you’re taking in response will usually suffice. In other situations, you should aim for a non-defensive statement that explains your position and, if possible, provides context reporters can use to write fuller and more balanced stories.

LD: What has been social media’s impact on crisis management?

PM: Social media has had substantial impact in accelerating crises but also in providing new tools to manage reputational challenges. The Domino’s Pizza controversy a few years ago is an example of both sides of the coin. A YouTube video of two Domino’s workers contaminating sandwiches quickly went viral, with more than a million views, causing a public relations crisis. But Domino’s was able to defuse the controversy with a video apology by its CEO. And where was the video posted? YouTube.

LD: What steps should a company take to create an effective crisis response plan?

PM: A good first step is to participate in an audit of your current crisis procedures and the issues that present particular concerns for a company. This can usually be done through a series of interviews with company leaders and a review of relevant materials. An alternate first step is to conduct a simulated exercise to test your crisis response abilities. The challenges presented by social media have led to the creation of simulations in which a company’s own online assets are used in a closed environment to stage a mock crisis that unfolds on Twitter, Facebook, and other online venues. Another option is a traditional “table top” exercise in which a moderator leads a group through an escalating crisis that demands various responses along the way.

The goal in all these exercises is to gather useful information to create a robust crisis response plan and team – typically senior operational, communications, and marketing executives, as well as legal counsel and outside consultants. You should also consider drafting communications plans for a few, select scenarios. You can’t plan for every contingency, but you can and should plan for scenarios unique to your business that could cause serious reputational damage.

LD: Why would a company turn to outside public relations counsel in a crisis?

PM: It isn’t always easy for internal groups to give their candid assessments about what the company should do when facing a crisis. Outside crisis management counsel can provide a clear assessment of a matter and how to respond. They often have deep experience in the specific crisis facing a company and thus can offer useful insights based on past cases. They also help companies navigate the rough waters of a 24/7 news cycle increasingly dominated by social media. And they “look around corners,” anticipating issues and crafting strategies for ending a crisis as quickly as possible. In my experience, the close collaboration of senior company leaders and outside crisis counsel leads is invaluable in taking on a crisis situation.