The year 2020 has been one for the ages. A pandemic and protests across the U.S. against systemic racism and inequality have led to business as unusual. While everything else has been unprecedented this year and many communications rules are being thrown out the window, I believe issues management best practices remain unchanged and time-tested.
Effective reputation management in communications begins with preparation, which will enable you to get and stay ahead of an issue. If you take time before a crisis hits to do the heavy lifting and follow these rules, when an issue does strike, you can avoid pressing the panic button.
1. Have a plan.
As President John F. Kennedy said, “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” With some preparation, you won’t be caught off guard when a crisis hits. Before a crisis occurs, while it’s still sunny, develop a crisis plan, issues management playbook and scenario plan.
Your scenario plan should have threat assessment levels based on potential issues you could face and how to communicate them. Know who the key players will be in a crisis, and designate a decision-maker. Build cross-functional teams with people who know what role they’ll play in a crisis, and don’t let the playbook sit on the shelf. Have the team go through crisis simulations on a regular basis.
Furthermore, ensure the right people are media trained. Every issue or crisis will be different, but you don’t have to start from scratch. You can simply start by following your own plan. The crisis may take many forms and meander in a few different directions, but let the playbook be your guide.
2. Don’t be a deer in the headlines.
Depending on the magnitude of the issue, your crisis could get media coverage. You want to be in front of the issue, not caught off guard. Doing so means you can control the message.
That said, being out in front of it doesn’t necessarily mean pushing news out; it means having key messages developed so if you are contacted by media or choose to be proactive, your messages will be delivered. That’s why even if you want to decline to comment on a media inquiry, at least draft and include a statement that communicates your message, values, leadership, etc.
Remember: Bad news often travels faster than good news, and social media can accelerate that further, so be ready with your messages.
3. Take responsibility and be in control.
If it is clear something has happened that needs to be corrected — such as a product recall, data breach, inappropriate advertising content or misguided social media post — be upfront and take ownership of the situation. Explain what happened, and let people know you how much you value their business. Then tell them you are going to fix the problem. Be forthright and in command, yet with a human and empathetic tone.
4. Don’t underestimate the problem.
This is especially true in data breaches, but never underestimating a problem applies to all crises. Underestimating the damage publicly might seem like a way to control the damage, but if you eventually have to tell the press and your stakeholders that it’s now worse, you will erode confidence in your company.
While it's always best to give an accurate assessment, you often have to make a statement before you have all the facts. So if you can’t give an accurate assessment of the damage, I believe it’s better to go with the higher end of the range than the lower end. Down the road, if things aren’t as bad as you predicted, you can report the lower number. That helps build the perception that the situation is under control, thus inspiring confidence.
5. The truth might hurt, but hiding the truth will hurt more.
It goes without saying, but telling the truth and doing the right thing should be a core principle of your response. To add an incentive to that, the information about your issue is eventually going to come out anyway. There is no hiding in the era of 24-hour news cycles, social media, hackers and whistleblowers. If a crisis occurs, always be authentic, upfront and truthful.
6. Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true.
Don’t blame the customer, the retailer or any other stakeholder. Don’t blame anyone but yourself. You can use a crisis to build better relationships with your stakeholders if you handle it with honesty, credibility and dignity. It’s not about the mistake — eventually we all make them. It’s about how you handle it. I believe relationships are tested and consequently strengthened in trying times.
Follow these basic rules and your company can stay afloat in times of choppy waters. If you’re not currently engaged in a pandemic-related issue, use this time to dust off your crisis plan or create a new one. Remember, from a crisis can emerge opportunity.