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How To Crisis-Proof Your Business Managing your reputation is important, and new business owners need to understand the importance of crisis preparedness as a central element of their business plan.

By Mitchell Prather

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It's unsurprising that very few entrepreneurs talk about crisis communications in their business plans. The focus during those early days is on funding, business development, branding and marketing– all of the positive activities that help to establish corporate identity, and its place in the market. But new business owners need to understand the importance of crisis preparedness as a central element of their business plan. And the earlier this is done, the better it is for your enterprise.

Reputations are built slowly, over time. This means that most startups have yet to establish important corporate values of trust, transparency and ethical trading, meaning that a crisis that happens early on poses a grave threat. Unlike large, established firms, a startup doesn't have the reputational collateral that can help them to recover quickly. And the owners of a new business are particularly vulnerable to making unwitting mistakes that can come back to haunt them.

Small decisions made early on and in good faith can have far-reaching reputational consequences, which is why every new business owner needs to sit down from day one (and on a regular basis) to assess the reputational consequences of decisions made. In short, they need to look ahead at every step of the way.

One of the most important things for new businesses to consider is whether or not their suppliers operate ethically. From the first day of operation, business owners need to be in a position to state that they source their materials/ingredients/ supplies from trusted sources that operate responsibly. That means considering the impact that the supply chain has on the environment, communities and individuals manufacturing or producing the things you are buying. There may be a compromise to be made– the trusted supplier may be more expensive. Think about the true value of reputation and whether or not your brand can afford to source from a supplier whose business harms the environment or enslaves factory workers.

One of the best ways to build a responsible business is to identify each and every touchpoint. You and your team should sit down and identify every individual person, group of people, special interest group and other organizations that your company and its products and services impact– even if it is indirectly. This process does not need to be complicated or laborious; it can be as easy as creating a spreadsheet of stakeholders and the way in which your business touches them, alongside any potential areas of risk. This will help those making decisions to make them with all stakeholders in mind, and by default reduces the chances of making mistakes. Such an approach also gives you and your team confidence that you are operating responsibly and doing all the right things.

All of your internal processes matter- particularly the way in which you treat your employees. This means adopting best practice in areas such as health and safety, HR and legal matters. It is in your best interests to put in place anti-discrimination policies pertaining to sex, sexuality, race, age and any other areas of potential contention or conflict. Happy employees are strong ambassadors, and on the flip side, badly treated workers are a reputational crisis in the making. So think about putting in place simple systems such as regular reviews, an open-door policy, confidentiality guarantees, newsletters and an intranet.

A comprehensive internal communications platform will take time, but the important thing is that it will lay the foundations to communicate openly and effectively from day one.

Source: Shutterstock

The management team of a new business should immediately be discussing how it intends to communicate with its stakeholders through social media. The rise of Facebook and Twitter present businesses with opportunities to promote a positive reputational image to stakeholders; but it's incredibly important to realize that it's a two-way street. Consumers, competitors, special interest groups and other stakeholders have the ability to post things about your firm, and you have absolutely no way of preventing it. This is why all communications via social media need to be strictly on message, by adhering to corporate guidelines on ethics, discrimination, political comment– all areas of potential conflict. Guidelines on social media output should form part of the company's rule and regulations and also be included in employee contracts.

One of the most important things to do if a crisis does happen is to convene as a management team and –if possible– source outside help. Crisis contingency plans can be developed by external consultancies that provide a step-by- step guide to respond in any eventuality. These plans will tell you who to call, in what time frame and precisely what to say (and what not to say). These are the gold-standards in crisis planning. But, these are expensive and by their very nature, reactionary.

It is our experience as a growing business that the best way to deal with a crisis is to do everything in our power to make sure it doesn't happen. We make sure that we work with organizations that operate ethically, we apply international best practices in everything we do internally and externally. As a communications consultancy, we know how important it is to ring-fence our reputation– crisis awareness and prevention is a priority and has been since the day we opened our doors. It should feature in every entrepreneur's business plan.

Mitchell Prather

Managing Director, Djembe Communications

Mitchell Prather is the Managing Director of Djembe Communications. He brings over 25 years of international financial and corporate communications experience gained in Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and the Middle East. He joined Djembe from Grayling, where he headed the agency’s African and Middle East operations. Previously, Prather worked at Mubadala Development Company, where he managed all communications related to M&A deals and international financing activities. He was also the lead of corporate communication requirements of key portfolio company assets and employee engagement. Prior to joining Mubadala, Prather served as Joint Managing Director of Golin Harris where he co-led a 28-strong pan-GCC corporate communications consultancy.
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