Jodi Amendola is CEO of Amendola, an award-winning healthcare and high-tech public relations and marketing agency based in Scottsdale, AZ.
Outside of work, one of my passions is playing pickleball. My motto on the court is to always be ready, which means I keep my paddle poised at a 10 o’clock position, knees bent and ready to swing. When my paddle is up, I’m prepared for whatever comes at me, whether that be a backhand or forehand stroke, groundstroke or volley, a sudden lob or a cross-court dink. In pickleball, you should never let your paddle hang down by your side because then you won’t have time to react to the next shot.
Adopting a mindset of always being ready means giving yourself the advantage of situational awareness. While you can’t predict what comes next, you can have a strategy in place to convert incoming attacks into a surprise return—and you may even win the point.
Successful crisis management involves a similar focus on preparation and positioning. While you can anticipate some crises in the making, the majority seem to come out of nowhere. A crisis can range from product recalls to technology breaches, corporate miscommunications to bad press. In our online world, one negative article can have a snowball effect, influencing the tone of subsequent pieces and causing a media-feeding frenzy that can significantly damage a brand.
Whether or not a crisis takes your company by surprise is all a matter of planning. In the last several months, my public relations and marketing agency has partnered with our clients to handle a number of crisis communications. We find it is much easier to mitigate the impact of a negative event when there is already a strong communications plan in place. Read on for tips on how to perfect your company’s defensive, proactive stance.
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Create a crisis management team.
Your team should include the CEO, senior executives, general counsel, and key members of your marketing, communications, human resources and information technology teams. Assign alternates for each functional role to make sure your company is ready to respond at all times, even when key players are unavailable. Establish a communication chain of command, which stipulates who to contact (and in what order) within the first few minutes of a crisis.
Choose a designated spokesperson who will serve as your company’s primary media contact for all press inquiries. This person should be extremely knowledgeable about your organization and should receive professional media training to ensure they can maintain their poise under pressure.
Conduct an in-depth risk assessment audit.
Conduct a risk assessment to identify specific company vulnerabilities that could escalate a potential crisis. Run through likely scenarios with your team: How would your company handle a data breach that exposed protected personal health information? What about a lawsuit from a competitor, or a class action lawsuit from multiple clients? How should you respond to a huge financial loss or allegations of misconduct among senior staff? Conduct a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis for each event to create targeted messaging that will resonate with a variety of audiences.
Develop a crisis communications plan.
By its nature, a crisis always feels immediate, but the pace of your response will vary depending on the scenario. Many public relations crises are not quickly resolved. Be prepared with both short- and long-term messaging. Although you can’t address the particulars until the time comes, you can create holding statements to speed up your responses, as well as draft press releases and FAQ documents.
Include strong brand positioning and supporting statements to reinforce your organization’s data stewardship, corporate values, track record and the like. Establish a clear approval process specific to crisis communication. Don’t forget to establish an internal communications process as well as an external one. When employees are bombarded with negative company news but only hear radio silence from management, it can erode the trust you’ve worked so hard to build.
Engage the media in conversation.
While you can’t always control the narrative, your actions can set the tone for how a crisis is handled in the media—and how the public reacts. No matter how catastrophic the event, forgiveness is usually possible if an organization takes responsibility, addresses any potential victims with concern and demonstrates its willingness to deal with the issue immediately.
Depending on the circumstance, it might be appropriate for your company to hold a press conference, issue a press release, arrange media interviews, establish a telephone hotline, and/or conduct proactive outreach to clients, patients or partners. Keep your messaging simple and direct. If an apology is called for, make sure it is an actual apology rather than a deflection. Own the mistake and show that you understand the ramifications of this lapse of judgment/protocol/security for the injured party.
For a large-scale crisis, it might also be a smart move to launch a dedicated website. Consider creating blog posts, infographics or short multimedia pieces to keep the public informed and to engender trust in your company’s ongoing response.
Monitor the news and public reaction.
As the crisis unfolds, it’s critical that your company stay abreast of any new developments. Assign well-trained members of your crisis management team or public relations agency to monitor your social media channels and respond appropriately to public comments. Do not engage in defensive back-and-forth with aggrieved clients or members of the public. Use the media relationships you’ve cultivated in the past to secure follow-up interviews, which can help keep misinformation in check.
Analyze your performance.
After a crisis concludes, it’s always a good idea to conduct a detailed post-mortem analysis. What went well? How could you have handled it better? Did you over- or underreact? Adjust your crisis management plan as needed.
Remember: Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. If you follow this advice, you’ll be in the right position when the next attack comes: poised, waiting and ready to respond.
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Author: Jodi Amendola, Forbes Councils Member