Handling a Crisis: The Internal Battle May Be Worse Than the Media War
In the heat of a public crisis, a company often becomes its own worst enemy. While scrambling to get accurate information and formulate a response, even the most well-intentioned department will try to shape the response to its own priorities. Marketing needs to protect sales. Operations can’t afford disruptions. Human resources is bracing for employee problems. Investor relations wants nothing said that might alarm shareholders. Legal wants to limit liability.
This is the moment for everyone in the company to know the proper goal of a crisis response: It is not to simply “deal with the media,” but to preserve the long-term credibility of the enterprise – first get control of the flow of information to get past the immediate crisis with as little damage as possible, all the while laying the groundwork for restoring your company’s reputation.
The CEO wants the media problems fixed NOW, but is inundated by competing suggested strategies of stonewalling, sugarcoating the truth, blaming others, taking the offensive, hiding behind “we don’t comment on litigation,” fully going public, or choosing to prepare well and do nothing.
How does a company navigate where it needs to go? There is an old axiom that applies: “The definition of the situation IS the situation.” Honesty, transparency, a good-faith effort to solve problems and concern for customers and victims are essential.
The response starts well before the crisis with a plan that structures the communications flow. Each stakeholder should have an opportunity to contribute, but the final decision will fall to a small key group. Have it in writing. Create a communications matrix. Get senior management to buy into the process.
In a crisis, information should go to key stakeholders, including the CEO, the COO and those who will deal with the various publics – the news media, government agencies, banks, shareholders, employees, customers, vendors, etc. Once everyone comments, the decision-making moves to a smaller crisis response team – the CEO, COO, the CFO, legal and PR.
There may still be competing points of view – often particularly between legal and PR – this is a senior group that can focus on the long-range goals and craft a response from the end-point goal of protecting the company’s image and reputation for the long term.
The most critical work in public relations crisis management is not with the media, but away from it. By preparing before executing. And by persuading competing interests to realize that open, honest communication is in the best short-term and long-term interests of any organization.