Frank TortoriciFrank Tortorici

A crisis is any event — accidental or intended — that has or could have an adverse effect on an organization’s reputation and business. The crisis could be physical and involve the safety of a company’s employees and the work space in which it operates, or be an event, caused or not caused by the action of an employee, which threatens corporate reputation.

It’s critical to the nature and degree of the potential situation to confirm that it’s indeed real and a threat to an organization or client. However, preparation for a crisis should always at least begin when a potential threat is identified, because a false alarm situation is preferable to a full-blown crisis being underway without any notice or response.

At the onset of a situation, it’s important to determine who’s involved, where it’s taking place, and when the crisis began. To rule out false alarms, it’s vital to study the initial source of reporting of the situation. Then, speed of action should always be accelerated if the victims of the crisis are in imminent danger and if media are aware of the event.

O'Dwyer's Jan. '18 PR Buyer's Guide & Crisis Communications MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '18 PR Buyer's Guide & Crisis Communications Magazine

Remember to involve all the company’s offices in the crisis plan of action. A key senior member of each office should be designated to work closely and continually with the centrally-located crisis response team.

If the situation is determined to not yet be a crisis — but has the potential to become one — then the crisis response team should be on call to monitor the situation, keep upper management updated, ensure that crisis plan tactics are in ready mode and allay the fears of any staff or customers that are aware of an impending crisis.

Organizations should be considered

One matter that should be determined quickly is which departments and deliverables of the company are affected by the crisis.

Departments most often heavily affected by crises include sales, finance, operations, human resources and information services and technology, the latter especially so in recent years as IT has been the target of cybersecurity threats which are on the rise at a frightening pace. Once the crisis begins, it should be rapidly ascertained which departments and functions will be necessary to stay in business. Things that should be considered include the ability to supply products and services to associates and other customers, the ability to repair or replace equipment, and the ability to determine inventory and pending work transactions.

There are crises of all types and levels to be considered. In addition to cybersecurity threats, there are incidents that involve possible property damage, severe injury to employees or the public stemming from a company’s operations and even death. Other health-related dangers include medical epidemics such as the Avian flu and major weather-related problems such as a tsunami, earthquake, massive flood or dangerous fires surrounding a place of work such as the recent swath of fires in southern California.

Other potential disasters include problems with access to company infrastructure, such as when a building has design problems, and disgruntled employee or terrorist related threats. These could be pranks or could represent a great degree of physical danger as with situations involving a bomb or firearm activity on corporate premises.

Some crises are directly related to internal conflict, such as an abrupt change in top management. This could be the death of a CEO or the firing of a leading vice president. Sometimes, justified or not, a company is accused of racial or gender discrimination.

To prevent the latter, it’s important to ensure that all staff handbooks and communications contain language inherent in them that the company provides an environment that does not allow discrimination. Any alleged breaches of this policy should be considered a crisis situation.

Social media compels quick response

Because today’s successful companies are expected to maintain active presences on major social media outlets including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the speed of response to a crisis is more vital than ever.

Customers are often in regular interaction with a corporation via Twitter, for example, and the failure to respond to an internal or external crisis can make a company look lazy or indifferent. Aggrieved consumers often take action on social media, where the choice of channels is highly visible and varied. Such attacks can cause lasting damage to a brand.

It’s important that responses are planned carefully and not executed half-heartedly. The best way to ensure that answers are communicated smoothly is to have a crisis response team in place.

The Response Team is the group that will manage the crisis as it unfolds, often consisting of staff from several departments: executive office (CMO and SVP, operations); public relations; legal (monitors ensuing or potential future litigation); and operations/HR.

The team should be responsible for monitoring the crisis and preventing when possible similar, future emergency or crisis situations.

In most cases, it’s best to split the team: an “onsite group” should travel to the site of the incident immediately. A “home group” should convene in the office or another location away from the site of the incident.

Effective messaging to stakeholders

Often the chief marketing officer will head the response team and be responsible for crafting and disseminating messages to outside individuals that provide direct and viable potential solutions to the crisis, accurate news of what is actually happening, and honest, calm answers to people’s questions.

Before beginning a crisis response, it is vital to remember an organization’s goals. They should include protecting employees and their families, serving the public and customers and safeguarding financial and capital assets.

All of these factors should be addressed in the crisis communications effort. The communication should include customer engagement via social media and through other technological channels chosen by the response team which can include webcasts and video messages.

The individuals chosen to address the public in crisis situations, which often include the CMO and CEO, should also be media trained by their public relations representatives. Media training experts should address how to create and communicate pertinent talking points in media-ready sound bite form.

All communications should be designed and executed to assist company constituents in dangerous situations and to protect the employees and reputation of the corporation.

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Based in its New York office, Frank Tortorici leads Marketing Maven’s business communications practice. He can be reached at Frank@marketingmaven.com.