Crisis Communications: Protecting and Saving Reputations Everywhere!

An Interview with Evan Bloom of Fortress Strategic Communications

Communication is critical to the success of an organization – especially during a crisis. How well an organization communicates can help or hurt any reputation.

I have previously written about how organizations can better understand their reputation risk; one of those methods is to analyze your audience to improve communications. Whether the audience is employees, business partners, or customers, every word and action counts, which is why there are companies that focus on providing strategic advice on communications, especially crisis communications.

I interviewed Evan Bloom, CEO of Fortress Strategic Communications, on this topic to get an expert’s opinion. Here is what he said:

1) What are the top 5 things that companies should take into consideration when communicating with customers on a day-to-day basis?

  1. The more companies communicate, and the better their communication, the more likely it is that customers will be receptive to receiving information from the company when it is in a crisis. Better and frequent communication creates an understanding of a company and this may help the company when it is facing a crisis or potential crisis.
  2. Regular communication contributes to brand affinity.
  3. Don’t lie or send mixed messages, always ensure that communications are clear and truthful. If a company loses a client due to poor treatment or communication, it is harder to win back a former client than gain a new client.
  4. Ensure that whatever communication and treatment clients receive, employees receive the same. If a customer is treated badly and they vent on social media or go to the media you do not want employees to anonymously add to the fire by saying, ‘Yes, and you should see how company ABC treats its employees!’
  5. To communicate effectively and efficiently, companies must understand their clients including where they get their information from (media and social media channels) and how they perceive the company’s brand. A core part of understanding clients, which impacts communications, is being aware of their views and opinions. This includes knowing what they are saying and doing in the social media realm, knowing and understanding what they are saying on the shop floor and knowing what they are saying to call centers on a daily basis. Too many companies are ‘divorced’ from their customers and therefore do not know how to articulate their communication and service accordingly.

2) What is the worst communication mistake you have seen? Why? And what could have been done differently to avoid this mistake?

I think that the recent Equifax crisis is a pretty good example of how not to manage a crisis. Their communication error, based on what is publicly known from the media, is that Equifax allegedly tried to cover up their data breach.

As tough as it is, one of the most important strategies is to get out in front of the bad news. This allows you to break your own bad news and gives you some say in what is disseminated by the media. Remember, you cannot control the media, but you can control what is sent to them and this can impact the perception that the media universe creates.

Honest, upfront, spin free and proactive communication with correct messaging helps far more than covering things up and hoping the bad news will go away.

 3) Why is crisis communication important?

A company that is crisis communications ready is a company that is serious about its brand, reputation, staying in business, and continuing to provide its services, solutions and products to its customers.

Having a well managed risk environment that includes all the relevant plans – crisis communications, business continuity, cyber security, HR, and data breach – amongst many others – also points to a level of corporate responsibility and maturity and having this level of preparedness could contribute to keeping a company open and people employed.

Today there is no excuse. Companies have to be crisis communications ready and be prepared to communicate with all the stakeholders that it engages with.

4) What are the key components of a crisis communication plan?

There are standard components that are in every crisis plan. However, one of the challenges that I see is that many crisis communication planners simply use a template approach, drop in relevant information into various ‘boxes,’ tick things off, and think they have a crisis communications plan.

I am of the firm belief that before you plan you must know your vulnerabilities because how can you plan if you do not know where you are vulnerable and what the impacts of the crisis will be. Being aware of vulnerabilities also gives a company a better understanding of what holding statements to prepare and what resources it may need to deal with crises.

You should also create your crisis management team and identify your spokesperson, before the plan is built out because the team should be part of the crisis planning process – it gives them an opportunity to be involved in the planning process, which will bring greater familiarity with the plan when its time to implement it. Also, out of the vulnerability audit you will know what crises you could face and what human assets may be needed on the crisis team – even though there are almost always ‘the usual suspects.’

The basic components of a crisis communications plan are listed below – but there are many more components that could be added depending on the company, its operational environment and risks identified:

  1. List of crisis team members with contact details
  2. What constitutes a crisis
  3. Processes to be followed if a crisis is identified and declared
  4. Company policies and responsibilities for various crises (product recall, data breach)
  5. Roles and responsibilities of each person on the team
  6. Stakeholder communication policies, processes for internal and external audiences
  7. Collateral materials to be used for the media and other stakeholders
  8. Holding statements and core messaging for digital, broadcast and traditional media
  9. List of third-party experts, their contact details and responsibilities
  10. Journal to document actions taken – this is crucial from a governance and compliance perspective

Don’t forget to media train everyone – even the crisis team members whom may not speak to the media. The crisis communications plan needs to be tested and exercised at least every six months.

5) What was the best crisis response you have seen from an organization? Why?

There are many but a 2011 one involving an American Red Cross employee mistakenly sending out a tweet intended for her personal Twitter feed on her employers’ official account is one of my favorite.

A young lady tweeted out: “Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch beer…. when we drink we do it right #gettngslizzerd.”

The Red Cross could have over reacted in a number of ways, but their common sense and a good dose of good humor prevailed – which won the day for them.

They deleted the tweet and made light of the situation by responding, “We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.”  This lighthearted response helped defuse the situation.

The win-win came when Dogfish Head – the beer brand mentioned in the initial tweet, capitalized on the situation – as they should have – and asked their followers to donate to the Red Cross. They also proactively ‘suggested’ to their followers and curious onlookers in the Twitter universe to use the hashtag #gettngslizzerd.”

Humor in a crisis can work but it is situation dependent. It depends on the issue, the brands, their personas and the circumstances leading up to the crisis. However, humor still remains a very risky strategy and tactic and using it incorrectly can backfire and make things worse.

When it comes to communications, it is critical that all employees be aware of their actions and how it can affect the organization’s reputation. Start working today to develop and test a crisis communications plan…because it is better to be prepared than have to scramble during a real crisis.

What is your favorite (mis)communications incident? How did the company handle the  situation?

Post your comments below or join the conversation on LinkedIn.

If your organization is struggling with understand its reputation or other major risks, check out our posts on ways to survive reputation scrutiny and ways to better understand reputation risk for more. And to discuss your organization’s specifically, please feel free to reach out to me anytime.

And please contact Evan if your organization needs some hands-on guidance on crisis communications.

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About Fortress Strategic Communications:

Fortress Strategic Communications provides specialized strategic public relations and crisis communications consulting to companies that offer products, services, and solutions designed to manage and mitigate all types of risk. FSC also provides market specific solutions for data breach events and counsels startups looking to enter the risk management arena. The company draws on their executives’ combined 20 years of global experience in a broad array of vertical markets. For more information please visit www.fortresscomms.com or contact us via info@fortresscomms.com.

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