Reputation crisis management
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How to handle PR and reputation crisis
The question of how to handle PR and reputation crisis is one which often gives little time for thorough consideration. Like a hurricane sweeping through, savagely devastating innocent lives, an online reputation crisis tends to visit organisations with little warning as to their actual strength, their impact, or their destructive intentions. A story that does not go away within days or weeks is likely to stay on and increase in traffic over time.
It is a human tendency to respond fast to most perceived dangers in life. Reputation crisis management is not different. However, the internet makes sure that in most cases, a bad reputation does not simply go away, which means it is the type of danger which is likely to stay but the shape and nature of it is likely to be determined by how you respond to the reputation crisis situation as it occurs.
The difficulty with reputational crisis management, as it happens in real time, is that professional advice tends to be one dimensional.
At the same time, lawyers tend to think in legal terms and to short distances and are often lacking themselves the ability to understand the long-term impact of your current reputation crisis. After all, once you cease to be a client, or once your legal case has concluded, the lawyer will move on to the next case.
Crises involving online defamation or unflattering information circulating on the internet are probably the most threatening public relations issues for a modern business. Companies are often unprepared for unexpected dissemination of true or false information. The lack of a proper, coordinated response often results in a rapid aggravation of the crisis. If there is an opportunity to do so, your organisation should develop a reputation crisis management policy from the outset. This is something we will be able to help you with.
For a start, it is always advisable for every company - whether it has 2 directors or 20 - to have in place an online reputation alarm system to alert bosses as soon as possible of any high-risk information that appears on the internet.
Speed is essential in responding to allegations or unwanted disclosures on the internet. But what is even more important, is the nature of the response, in both tone and substance. It is possible to survive and even flourish during reputational crisis situations. To do so, a company needs to have an internet PR crisis management policy in place.
All those who hold a role on that policy team should get together at least once a year to discuss the policy and their individual roles.
During normal times, the sales department will be handling sales, the support department will be handling customers’ technical issues, and the information technology or marketing department will be handling the company’s blogs, social networking sites and so on.
But a crisis involving online defamation or the publishing of undesirable information over the internet requires a highly co-ordinated approach of reputational crisis management by all of these people. Negative information about the company is likely to lead to an increase in buyer objections, which means sales are going to be affected.
Also likely to be affected, is the department dealing with customer complaints. There may be an increase in rejected or returned goods, with customers assuming, because of what they read on the internet, that there is something wrong with them. There might also be media interest in the derogatory information.
In extreme cases, investigating journalists may even call your sales department to discover first-hand the attitude of your employees.
When negative information about the company appears online, even customers who might have been otherwise happy, start to lose confidence in your company, and gain the courage to add their own opinions to the online discussion.
It is therefore very important for your company to meet in advance of trouble to discuss how the company will handle internet reputation crisis situations. Those at the top of the organisation need to ensure that there are systems in place that filter down to the customer support team and the sales people who handle daily contact with the public.
Everyone should know their role. A chain of command should be set up and new developments communicated to management as well as employees on the ground.
When the first sign of a crisis appears, the person in charge of crisis management should call in all the stakeholders. Management should open a discussion of how the company intends to proceed.
Don't shut out other departments. Everyone should contribute to the discussion from their own perspective, so that the sales team understand how to handle new objections, PR people are aware of possible escalation, and so on. The management team should then draw up a plan making it clear what everyone's responsibility is.
At least twice a day, a smaller team should go through any new information appearing on the internet, including the latest blog posts and forum discussions, as well as any press coverage of the crisis. The team should remain flexible and be prepared to change course if required.
At the time of a social media crisis, you might want to use this guidance as an example for reputational crisis management
Prepare a clear action plan of reputation crisis management
Establish key players in your company and decide what role each should play during a crisis. Consider who your key players are for each type of crisis: legal, PR, etc. Seek advice. Seek co-coordinated advice. Perhaps invite a reputation lawyer and a PR specialist to a board meeting where they will be assisting you in allocating tasks and responsibilities to each of the key players.
Establish modes of communication
Clarify the method by which communication between the key players will take place. For example, will they use email, phone, WhatsApp or the company’s chat platform. Try to have single communication method so that the information can flow and reach everyone in the team in real time. Often, multi forms of communications could result in missing information for some of the key players and in the lack of co-ordination. Make sure that key players are reachable.
Keep your workforce involved
When an internet reputation crisis arises, have the most knowledgeable person in that particular area, brief everyone else about it in as much detail as possible.
Your sales people are going to be affected by the crisis so even if they have nothing to do with the PR, their work is going to be affected by the current crisis and the follow-up action by the company.
If the issue involves a technical failure, for example, the sales and customer support people will need to understand the nature of the failure and be able to communicate it to customers in a simple and coherent manner.
If the matter concerns a badly-worded statement by the PR people, it is important to make sure all departments follow the corrected explanation given to the press and the public.
Prepare multiple methods of response
A major goal for anyone who deal with reputation crisis management is to move as quickly as possible from a defensive responsible approach to an advanced position where your company is back dictating the agenda. To help you to this, prepare at least three different methods of response where at least one method which is focused on progression and ways to take back the initiative. Continuously discuss methods of dealing with the crisis and their predictable outcomes.
Establish a time frame
Establish a time frame to deal with the internet reputation crisis. You cannot afford to let a bad story run for days, weeks, months, or years. A story that does not go away within days or weeks is likely to stay on and increase in traffic over time. All the departments and people in your organisation need to make a concerted effort to resolve the crisis within a short time frame.
Hire a professional firm
Monitor blogs and social media intensely. If your company does not have an in-house PR team trained to deal with a crisis, hire an external team to handle the matter for the first few crucial weeks. The external PR team might be part of your law firm or another company that understands your brand and your company’s culture.
Avoid taking the view that internet reputation crisis management is all about saving the face of your company. Instead, focus on communicating your position in a way that builds trust in your organisation. Remember, people understand that we all sometimes make mistakes.
What your customers will not forgive is a perception that you dodge the real issues or do not fully acknowledge their concerns.
Let customers vent their anger
Consider providing your customers with a forum to contain the discussion. Let them communicate directly with your company through the company's blog, the director's blog, the company’s internet forum or live podcasts.
Document and learn lessons
When the crisis has been contained, assemble as soon as possible all the information you have learned and communicate it back to employees. This important process will not only win you gratitude from your employees, but it will also provide you with a quality framework for handling similar crises in the future.