Michael Maslansky
Michael Maslansky

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening my axe,” said Abraham Lincoln. Similarly, the key to successful crisis management is the kind of solid preparation that can turn a negative event into a positive message about your company.

Here are ten questions to assist you in turning a potential reputational disaster into branding gold.

1. Do you have a repeatable process for crisis communications?

When a crisis hits, all communicators need to be on the same page and following the same guidelines. In many cases, the PR person on call is the one responsible for developing the message. In large companies, that often means that you may get not only different responses, but totally different approaches to developing the crisis message. It’s important to put guardrails around the crisis response, so that it will always be consistent.

Having a repeatable process – and a central message repository – will allow you to learn from your best practices and keep a clear message. In a world where all responses are a Google search away, it’s more important than ever to bring a consistent approach.

2. Are you able to look at your company’s potential crises from an outsider's point of view?

Being in crises provokes fear—and adrenaline. It’s normal to go into fight, flight or freeze. But to handle the crisis effectively, in a way that diffuses negativity and strengthens consumer alliance with your brand, you have to shift your brain out of that mode and get empathetic.

When accusations are made, can you see them through a lens of understanding and empathy, as opposed to trying to find the weaknesses in their argument? Are you listening to understand or are you listening to reply?

3. Do you have a list of the actions your company can take in a crisis?

It’s never enough to respond with generalities. People want to know, specifically, what actions you are going to take. It’s important to have a catalog of actions and policies that highlight your company’s commitment to doing the right thing when it comes to product safety, data security, employee and workplace environment, and any other area you could be vulnerable to a crisis. Having this list in advance will ensure that you can respond to any crisis quickly. Corrective actions that are already in process, or that you can implement immediately, will convey responsible action to the public.

4. Are you preparing your CEO properly?

Crises are highly emotional--especially for the leader of an organization, who often feels that his/her personal reputation is at risk. A CEO may feel the media are slanting the story and go on the attack. The best outcomes come from CEOs who are willing to acknowledge the problem quickly and address it firmly. Prepare your CEO to avoid the natural tendency to be defensive and instead act with compassion. Everyone, including your CEO, should refrain from immediately commenting– especially via social media. Be sure that all responses are vetted by the communications and legal teams.

5. Do you have established ground rules for working with legal?

Communicators need to get a message out in the heat of a crisis—but lawyers often have to sign off first. The danger here is that a crisis statement can be too tied to ‘legalese’ and not anchored in the compassion and action that will shift public perception. Before a crisis hits, establish rules of engagement between communications and legal so that the process is as seamless as possible. A process that enables them to work together is key to handling both reputational and legal risk in the timely manner required.

6. Do you know how to say sorry?

Does your company know how to navigate the art of the apology? A heartfelt acknowledgement does not have to be an admittance of guilt. Empathy, as mentioned above, is the key ingredient, and you need a strong arsenal of ways in which you can convey it.

One of the problems, however, is finding the best way to apologize without saying the actual word “sorry.” An outright apology may create a direct tie to liability.

Statements should be prepared in advance that express appropriate levels of regret in various circumstances. A collection of statements should be prepared and vetted that accomplish the goal of demonstrating responsibility and action.

7. Have you incorporated risk management into your strategy?

Companies have lawyers to manage legal risk, consultants to manage business risk, and accountants to manage financial risk. But who is managing your communication risk? When it comes to the way that companies respond to a crisis, very little preparation happens at the board level. Boards should ensure that that there is a plan in place to address crisis risk.

8. Are you responding to the real issue—the narrative—that is underpinning the crisis?

Crises tend to metastasize faster when they tie into a larger narrative about the company, the industry, or business in general. If society thought all companies were good, then they’d give them the benefit of the doubt. But there is a larger narrative that says, "big companies don't care about customers." If you just try and address the surface facts, for example, why the ingredient is not at fault or why the issue was created by isolated employees who’ve been let go, you're answering the wrong question. You have to address the underlying narrative in order to successfully mitigate the crisis.

9. Have you established a voice for you audience?

Is there someone in your organization who can serve as the public advocate? Are you that person? What tools do you have at your disposal to effectively listen to the voice of the public and translate that into action? Many companies have social listening tools to measure volume and sentiment, but where they fall short is actually distilling down the language that's being used to criticize them by the public. It's in those customer insights – in what they are saying – that you get the most robust incites about how people really feel.

10. Have you defined success?

Define what a truly good outcome is. What is your ultimate goal when you respond? Strive for that goal, instead of letting the fear of backlash constrain you from creating the best possible response.


Michael Maslansky, who has counseled Johnson & Johnson, Starbucks and Procter & Gamble, is CEO of maslansky+partners. He can be reached at [email protected]