Under Fire

Will a crisis take your company down? Here's how deft handling can turn public opinion around.

Last year, Firestone Tire and Rubber and Ford Motor Co. became embroiled in a massive media crisis when Firestone tires, standard equipment on more than 17,000 Ford trucks and SUVs, were implicated in at least 62 deaths and numerous injuries in the United States. And despite Firestone's ultimate decision to recall more than 6 million tires, its slow response, lack of preparedness for the media onslaught and failure to demonstrate concern for consumers proved catastrophic for the company. Ford, on the other hand, has fared significantly better in the eyes of the public: The company responded immediately to consumers via a national ad campaign, made its executives available for press interviews and established a consumer hotline.

Before Disaster Strikes

Firestone and Ford's example involves major corporations, but an equally devastating situation could strike your company. What if a crisis hits when you least expect it, presenting you with a PR nightmare? Are you prepared? The last thing you want is for public opinion to do irreparable damage to your company's bottom line. That's why it pays to have an emergency response plan in place ahead of time. Take these five steps before a problem arises:

1. Assess your vulnerability. According to the Institute for Crisis Management (ICM), a research-based consulting firm in Louisville, Kentucky, most of the problems that turned into organizational crises in the past decade could have been controlled had someone in the organization taken appropriate action. Every business has vulnerabilities-such as product recalls, workplace violence, outside legal actions, sexual harassment suits or accusations of environmental damage. Try to imagine the most likely scenarios for PR crises in your business and then devise hypothetical response plans.

2. Select a spokesperson. Choose a senior executive from your company to be the contact person for the media. Pick someone who is cool under pressure, credible, good on camera and adept at presenting a positive image for your business.

3. Prepare key messages. What do you want the public to remember about your company? It may be your record on safety or your commitment to the environment, for example. Summarize those message points and have them ready to go at a moment's notice. During a crisis situation, you'll want to relay your positive key messages to media contacts.

4. Sign up for media training. Have your designated spokesperson and other top personnel attend a workshop with a qualified media trainer. Most PR firms that provide crisis-management services also offer training on how to effectively weave your key messages into interviews, handle hostile interviewers and come across well on camera.

5. Create an emergency contact list. If a crisis were to hit on a Sunday at 6 p.m., would you be able to immediately contact all the necessary people in your company? Update your emergency list and keep it current.

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Kim Gordon is the owner of National Marketing Federation and is a multifaceted marketing expert, speaker, author and media spokesperson. Her latest book is Maximum Marketing, Minimum Dollars.

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This article was originally published in the April 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Under Fire.

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