Jeff Grappone
Jeff Grappone

When bad news happens—from litigation to worker injuries to cultural missteps—organizations too often struggle to keep the situation from spinning out of control. They lose valuable time deciding how to react before the wet cement of public opinion hardens. When they’re finally ready to respond, the damage is already done—in some instances costing billions.

In crisis mitigation and management, there’s no substitute for preparedness. The best time to plan for a crisis is before your organization is in the eye of the storm. Companies can often forecast the various crises that could befall them, sometimes even with great specificity. While crisis situations require a reactive response, there’s an opportunity to craft a robust proactive strategy to preserve a company’s reputation.

That’s especially important because of how rapidly bad news can travel online. And social media networks don’t just provide a way for people to see the news—they also provide a channel to interact with the news. In today’s increasingly polarized and hyper-political world, that provides an opportunity for news consumers to pour gasoline on the fire—raising the stakes for companies to quickly contain crises and pivot to proactive storytelling.

To get ahead of future challenges, it is essential to craft a strategy with guidelines to counter attacks and address any potential crises. Here are the key areas where thoughtful planning can go a long way to protect and preserve an organization’s hard-earned reputation.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '24 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
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Vulnerability audit: The first step in crisis planning is for an organization to engage in an objective self-examination to identify its vulnerabilities, essentially looking around corners to see worst-case scenarios. This approach requires taking off rose-colored glasses to see the company through the eyes of opponents and critics. With a comprehensive audit of pressure points, it’s possible to establish the universe of areas that will require careful consideration and planning.

Align internal stakeholders: It’s critical to identify key decision makers before a crisis hits, with an eye toward avoiding silos. Bringing together external and internal communicators is just the first step. There’s also a need to ensure that there’s visibility across the enterprise, identifying key individuals within the organization who contribute to the organization’s reputation. For example, bringing government affairs professionals into the tent is important to prevent a reputation problem from becoming a regulatory crisis. Executives who are responsible for human resources, sales and vendor relationships should also be engaged, working to create a 360-degree team for crisis response.

Develop key messages: Crisis preparedness necessitates the development of topline messages to push back on attacks and reframe the narrative. Guided by an overarching message framework that encapsulates the organization’s core values, there’s an opportunity to build out bespoke messaging for various vulnerabilities. This activity should include drafting holding statements and Q&A documents that enable an organization to address issues publicly and proactively.

Internal communications: While crises are frequently considered external problems, an organization’s employees are key stakeholders who need direct outreach. Communicating with employees authentically and transparently is critical to maintaining their confidence. With internal communications, timing is critical. Whenever possible, no employee should first learn about their organization’s crisis by reading the news. Senior leaders need to communicate broadly with their teams as early as possible, whether that’s through written communications or in a town hall-style setting.

Real-time rapid response: There’s not a moment to lose when responding to a crisis. Communicators must quickly assess the damage of public attacks and execute appropriate responses through counter-messaging materials and media education. Robust media monitoring and social listening must be initiated to help decision-makers see what is being said about the organization and help them adjust the forward strategy if needed. When reporting is inaccurate or misleading, assertive media relations efforts are needed to correct the record immediately—lest flawed reporting get picked up by other news outlets or communications platforms.

Social risk framework: Controlling the online environment is critical to protecting an organization’s reputation and stopping brush fires from becoming infernos. It’s essential for an organization’s crisis guidelines to include a framework for engaging on hot-button issues that matter to stakeholders and could create enterprise risk. This framework should include an assessment process as well as best practices for diffusing potential crises online before they begin.

Thought leadership: As part of efforts to reframe the narrative, it may be advantageous for the organization’s top leader, such as the CEO, to push messaging through opinion pieces in local or national media. This controlled environment allows her or him an opportunity to lay out the organization’s views in a fulsome way, without a media filter. Moreover, it can help put the crisis in a broader context, highlighting the organization’s core values and laying out a vision for the future.

Third-party validation: The best time to make a friend is when you don’t need one. Before the storm hits, communicators should identify external individuals who can speak favorably about the organization should the need arise. This could include academics, industry groups or sympathetic commentators. If the road gets especially rough, calling in third-party voices can help redirect the narrative to more favorable terrain.

Tabletop exercises: Once crisis plans are in place and messages are set, it’s critical for an organization to pressure test its crisis strategy. Mindful that practice makes perfect, these tabletop exercises help communicators see where their strategy and crisis guidelines can be strengthened or adjusted. Tabletop simulation exercises stress test the critical response process, identify what’s working, improve what isn’t working and define next steps.

In today’s red-hot news cycle, a crisis can break out at any moment. Although no two crises are exactly the same, having a standardized approach for responding to bad news can make the difference between saving an organization’s reputation and lasting damage that decimates the bottom line. With organizations of all kinds coming under increasing scrutiny, there’s no better time than the present to make a crisis communications plan.


Jeff Grappone is an Executive Vice President and Chair of the Public Affairs Practice at ROKK Solutions in Washington.