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How to Save Face in a Business Crisis

Minimize the impact of a crisis on your small business with a pre-planned PR campaign.

Crises come in all shapes and sizes, from national crises that impact all types of organizations to industry-specific crises. Whatever the type, the way in which you manage a crisis can have a long-lasting effect on your business.

So what's a small business to do to manage a crisis effectively, especially considering they're not always predictable? Actually, you can anticipate far more than you think. A little forethought and planning can make even the worst crisis more manageable and improve your chances of successful recovery. The key is maintaining control.

Pre-Planning
Long before a crisis ever occurs there are several steps you can take to ensure that you're ready to react at a moment's notice. To start, establish a crisis communication team. If you're a larger business, this team should consist of senior management, legal and communications advisors. For smaller businesses, this "team" may simply consist of yourself and a PR advisor and lawyer you've established a relationship with and can call on a moment's notice. These individuals will be responsible for creating and executing the crisis response and managing the situation as it unfolds. All planning and communications--internal and external--should be dictated by the team. Nobody outside of the team should make any crisis-related decisions or speak on behalf of your business. Having a unified internal team is essential to maintaining control, which if lost, is difficult to recover.

Equally important to having a unified team is having consistent messages. While it's difficult to predict how to respond to a crisis that has yet to occur, it's possible to anticipate potential crises based on one's business and industry. Focus on known issues that could precipitate a crisis for your business or organization and create a written document that contains scenarios for eight to 10 potential crises. Map these scenarios to action steps and specific messages, and identify who on your team's responsible for executing and delivering each. Importantly, prep a Q&A comprising the difficult questions you may not want to but will have to face, and the answers you'll need at the ready.

Lastly, prepare a communications list of reporters, investors, customers, business partners, advisors, employees, third-party experts, community leaders and anyone else who should be notified during a crisis. Have this list in an easily accessible database, along with contact information for your internal crisis team members, for immediate reference.

Confronting a Crisis
When a crisis occurs, the first step is to admit to yourself you've got a problem. It's a natural response to flee during times of distress, but this type of reaction will guarantee doom. Ignoring a problem in the hope that it'll "blow over" will only fuel the fire and increase the chances of a full-blown crisis. No matter the size or scope of a crisis, it's wise to respond as quickly and as directly as possible.

Gather your crisis team and immediately review your database of scenarios and messages, determining the best course of action based upon the pre-planning you've done. Even if you don't have all the information at hand, you must determine an early response and communicate it immediately, even if it's only to acknowledge that you're aware of the situation and are investigating it. If you don't, you risk losing immediate control of the message and letting other people outside of your business establish themselves as the authority.

Also important to managing a crisis is controlling the flow of information. This can be achieved by implementing two measures. First, establish a single spokesperson for your business, even if it's you yourself. The spokesperson will be the face and voice of the organization throughout the crisis, whether talking to the press or internal staff. Having a single spokesperson should ensure that the tone and content of what's said is consistent. Mixed messages cause confusion, and confusion worsens any crisis situation.

A second measure for controlling the flow of information is establishing a central location for news. An organization's website is ideal for this. Websites are a known information resource, are readily accessible, and can be easily updated. In fact, well before the hint of a crisis, it's wise for an organization to consider establishing "dark pages" that are engineered specifically for crisis situations and can be turned on at a moment's notice. Dark pages should initially contain basic information about the company and how it responds to a crisis, such as where to go for updates, key contact information, etc. Once live, the site can be populated with news about the specific situation and updates from the company. There are easy-to-use content-management tools that let you update specific pages of a website from wherever you are.

Once you've established a central location for communications, you must then consider how, when and to whom you will communicate, based upon the actual circumstances. An important tool in this effort is your newswire service. Newswires allow for efficient dissemination of news releases and corporate information via wire, fax and e-mail, and ensure that such content reaches all necessary media, investor and public audiences. In addition to reaching these audiences via the wire, some newswires also let you store your own contact lists at no charge for use when you need it.

While newswires are known mostly for transmitting text-based information, many also offer the ability to create and distribute audio and video messages. During a crisis, using video is an excellent means for a CEO to "personally" communicate with his/her stakeholders, including the board of directors, at-large executives, customers, business partners and community leaders. Putting a face and voice to a message adds greatly to its impact. Further, newswires can rapidly distribute video of product, locations or operations, providing favorable images for the media in a time of crisis.

Lastly, many newswire services offer businesses the ability to track news coverage. In a crisis, it's imperative for a company to be informed about what's being reported in the media, the blogosphere and in chatrooms. While it's possible to use the search engines and other resources to track news, doing it without the aid of a monitoring service is daunting, and can result in missed coverage. Therefore, it's recommended that a company consult with its newswire to see what monitoring services are available.

Managing the Media
For the majority of companies that have confronted a crisis, the most nerve-wracking aspect of the crisis, other than the event itself, is dealing with the press. The media will pounce on a crisis, so it's best to be ready with an effective communication or, better yet, launch an offensive that enables you to take control of the message.

Many companies hide behind the shield of "No comment" during a crisis. Instinctively it might seem like the right thing to do, but this isn't the time to be an ostrich.

Rather, the best strategy isn't to fear the press as an enemy, but welcome the media as a potential ally. Be available and accommodating. Answer their questions as openly and honestly as possible. If they request additional information, provide it without hesitation, but make sure to give as much context as possible to mitigate potential negative commentary.

The intent of this approach is to leverage the goodwill you (hopefully) have established in your ongoing relationships with media to, in the very least, get the press to understand your business's plight, and, ideally, get them to portray the company's handling of the crisis as strong and decisive. Further, making yourself available to the press ensures that your message will be documented.

Conversely, don't, under any circumstances, try to spin a situation with misleading or inaccurate information. If the media uncovers the ruse, it'll compound the problem exponentially and make it nearly impossible for your company to emerge undamaged.

While these steps in no way guarantee that a company will ride out a crisis unscathed, they should ensure that the crisis is managed in a way that should benefit the company in the long run. In most cases, a crisis initially feels like a confluence of worst-case scenarios. However, if handled properly a crisis could actually strengthen an organization and help to position it in a more positive light.

Mark Nowlan is senior vice president of marketing & communications at PR Newswire. Nowlan is a frequent lecturer on media relations, strategic communications and crisis communications at industry conferences around the country. Get more information about PR Newswire and public relations with their PR Toolkit for small businesses.

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