Crisis communication: How to clean up the mess

In an earlier post, we outlined why the so-called fire combustion triangle can be so damaging when it comes to issues management – explaining how it’s easy to lose control of the message when your reputation is in a meltdown situation.

Now it’s time to share some tips on how best to put the fire out, clean up the mess and generally restore an element of sanity.

Note that these tips apply no matter what stage of the crisis you’re at. As noted previously, it’s always a good idea to have a crisis or issues management plan in place just in case, but then, like insurance, it tends to be considered as a distress purchase.

Here’s how you do it … eight steps to deal with your communications crisis

  1. Establish the facts. Best to tell us the truth, if you know it. If we’re going to help you, we will need to know what’s really going on. At this point, you really should not be worried about whether or not we’re going to blab – it’s our job to put a lid on things, we’re signed all the NDAs you can muster and we’ere happy to sign more – as long as we can get to the facts.
  2. We want to move quickly, but our next step is NOT to apportion the blame. We’re on hand to help you protect or salvage your reputation. Instead, we’ll put things into perspective, and work with the facts. Sometimes, this means some inconvenient truths – if your CEO consistently denied their involvement, and was then shown to have been implicated … time to face that one, for example. By moving quickly, we must show some real action and a desire towards wanting to “fix” those problems. This has to come from the top, assuming you still have a CEO. If you don’t, you’ll need to find a new lightning rod…
  3. Be transparent, consistent and clear in communicating, via all media channels. We know that you need to satisfy the bloodlust. Denying everything might be what the lawyers say, but they’re not responsible for protecting your corporate image that took years to build. Oh, and don’t fuel the fire, keep the number of spokespeople to a manageable few. Also, treat social media with respect – it’s just as easily able to bring you down
  4. Don’t hide away. The melee isn’t going to go away. Your shareholders are not going to thank you for bringing down the value of their investments. Issues management means preparing for more of the worst. And it means doing that right now
  5. Put the issue into perspective to ring-fence sales. You’re an ice cream maker. You’ve produced family favorites for 100 years. One bad batch has slipped through. You are taking steps to fix it – and you are happy to provide details. The relevant people who let this happen have been disciplined / fired and you have launched an internal investigation. And, by the way, this can only possibly affect two flavors – and not the entire range – because of different batches made in different factories on different days. So don’t give up on us, and there’s no need to throw away your favorite ice cream brand
  6. Don’t try and block emotion. Think internal communications. There will always be some emotion and anger internally, within your company, as well as in the field. It’s highly likely that your employees are suffering, too. Help them out. Explain yourselves to them, keep them in the loop – they are your most loyal ambassadors, make sure you don’t forget this
  7. Keep an eye on competitor FUD (the art of spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt when a competitor is in trouble) and call them to rights when necessary. Your crisis does not have to mean open season on your market share
  8. Recognize that you and your employees alike have emotional baggage. Of course you do. The company you work for – the brand you love – is on the ropes. Your stock holdings have lost half their value. You fear you’ll never work in the industry again. Yes, these are all real and justified fears … but if you play your cards right, you can emerge with at least your reputation still intact.

All of the above is why step number one of our issues management guide says: None of the following steps are discretionary.

Because when it comes to tackling a fire, you need to follow steps that were developed on a grey Tuesday afternoon when there was absolutely no risk to your reputation.

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