An airliner skids off the runway and catches fire, but passengers and crew are safely evacuated.
A software manufacturer releases a new version of a product, and then finds out about serious programming errors that cause it to malfunction.
A prestigious college discovers that hackers have broken into its computer system and obtained access to the names, dates of birth, and Social Security numbers of thousands of current and former students.
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How then do you reduce the risks of, and damage from, these events?
An Ounce Of Prevention
Detecting problems before they happen, when this is possible, is always the best strategy. This method saves money, sustains productivity, and maintains image and reputation.
Companies audit their employee manuals and their patent portfolios. Shouldn't they take similar preventative measures in identifying areas of potential public exposure?
For firms that are in high-risk areas, such as pharmaceutical, automotive, and HMOs, the need is obvious. Their best strategy is to not wait for the next class action before defending themselves in the 'Court of Public Opinion.' These outfits should take future controversy as a given.
Pooling the names and contact
information for the key people – C-Suites, inside and outside legal counsel,
inside and outside media/communications advisors – who will need to swing
into action as a team the moment a crisis occurs
Media-training the team
member(s) who will likely be the spokesperson(s) during the crisis
Establishing and building relationships with key reporters now, before you need them to be your friends
An enterprise, no less than a piece of machinery, has points of failure. At those 'locations' where something can go wrong, there needs to be mechanisms that can detect, correct, and report potential problems.
Are you monitoring all media
mention of anything in your organization that might be of concern? – for
example, coverage of a product that might face an uphill approval process by
Do you have competent
managers who have earned the trust of your employees? In well-run outfits,
staffs are conscientious and loyal, report problems, and go the extra mile
in a crisis. When an organization is poorly managed, workers look the other
way and, when issues arise, they are more likely to go to the media and/or
to regulators than to you.
Do you also have third-party-provided corporate hotlines? Sarbanes-Oxley, for example, requires publicly-held firms to have whistleblower hotlines to catch potential securities law violations.
To spot potential crises before they develop, the best eyes and ears are your people. Yet because they work with or under those who may actually be causing the problems, a third-party-operated corporate hotline service adds a most powerful element of disinterestedness. Your staff will feel confident that they can report critical matters without facing repercussions.
Even the best preventative measures will not stop all incidents. When these occur, here's what you should consider doing:
Post a blog that clearly
states (not defends) your position – how and why the company behaved
responsibly, or what it is doing to correct mistakes. Optimize the blog (a
simple technical process) to maximize traffic
Enlist third parties to speak
on the company's behalf. The more disinterested they seem, the better
Identify and promulgate a
powerful alternative story. If the company has trouble in area X, highlight
some success or good works in area Y that will be of equal and eventually
greater interest to the public. That story, aggressively developed and
disseminated, represents a choice opportunity to convert adversity into a
positive marketing opportunity
Know who your real
adversaries are and monitor their public initiatives. Consider a little
forensic investigation; you may come up with something that's a lot more
interesting to the media than anything that reporters might be writing about
Create methods for stakeholders (employees, customers and/or the public) to communicate with you and for you to communicate with them. Consider mobilizing call centers with enough capacity to handle what may be a flood of calls for both basic emergencies and for major disasters. Often times you can hire an outsourced call center to handle these communications so that your employees who deal directly with your customers can continue to operate your business
Many companies set up disaster response and emergency call centers in advance so they have a defined process in the event of an emergency. You can pre-arrange a standard but easily modifiable script, toll-free numbers, and an activation program that will allow you to handle any emergency with decisiveness. Such resources ensure the capacity and technology you need to deal with emergencies in the most efficient and cost-effective way.
Remember that when these strategies fail, life will probably still go on. Sometimes you just have to swallow a day or two of bad press coverage. The key is to control the damage, or, at best, launch a long-term initiative that will yield benefits well after your initial problems are resolved and forgotten.
About Gary Pudles:
Gary A. Pudles is President and CEO of the AnswerNet Network. He is also on the Wharton's Venture Initiation Program steering committee. Prior to founding AnswerNet Pudles served as vice president & general counsel, Apex Site Management (now American Tower), vice president, Muzak and manager, real estate, American Personal Communications.
The AnswerNet Network is a telemessaging call center business and a provider of outsourced contact center and fulfillment services. On a combined basis, the AnswerNet Network centers have an average experience level of over 30 years each in the telemessaging business.
About Richard Levick:
Richard S. Levick, Esq. is President of Levick Strategic Communications, which was named Crisis PR Agency of the Year by Holmes Report. His firm has managed media strategies for many of the world’s highest-profile matters, from the Catholic Church scandals to numerous issues arising out of the Middle East.
About Levick Strategic Communications:
Levick Strategic Communications, a global legal media, has managed the media in thousands of legal matters and crises, representing half the 100 law firms in America and one-third of the 100 in the world.
Published: Wednesday, August 16, 2006