Anti-crisis PR: a Checklist for a Company

Of course, in an ideal corporate world, crises do not occur, and if they do, then we are fully ready for them, we know how to respond, we please our customers, investors, employees and receive bonuses for a perfectly handled situation. Unfortunately, interaction with a large number of people — employees, customers, contractors — feeds misunderstandings, negativity, conflicts. Taking into account force majeure circumstances, unfortunate circumstances, a market decline, actions of competitors, etc. — all of it makes the company the object of complaints, negative comments on social media, and unpleasant publications. The quicker, nicer, wiser you react the quicker you get out of the crisis, the quicker all the negativity will fade away, the longer your clients will stay with your company, even dissatisfied ones. (Regardless of whether you are a big company, a small one or a startup.)

What if a crisis is “around the corner”?

It is clear that a crisis happens unexpectedly, but in any case, your company should have a survival kit that you can use at the slightest suspicion of an abnormal situation. At the same time, of course, it is clear that there are crises that can be predicted, but there are those that cannot. However, you can prepare for both.

Of course, this applies not only to large and very large businesses. Everyone should have an anti-crisis strategy: from a large corporation, which is understandable, to a corner shop with a director at the checkout.

So, what should an anti-crisis strategy include? What should be done in your company before a crisis:

The company’s principles and key messages

You probably already have such a document and it is published in the rarely visited website footer entitled “The Company Mission” or in a huge PR document under a heading “Key messages” or comes to mind at every possible occasion but is not put on paper. I am a not a supporter of dead company missions if anyone wants my opinion. However, even if you do have such a document, this section will include something else entirely. This section must state the main values of the company that must be transmitted always, regardless of the particular situation. You must also decide which position should be chosen in unforeseen circumstances. If we are talking about foreign practice, the key principle established in all policies and procedures is “Victims first”. Especially when it comes to disasters, emergencies, leaks, harassment, violence etc. Here are a few more examples of such messages:

- we are sorry whatever happens;

- we are always on the client’s side;

- we are always on the employee’s side (but we do not support consumer extremism: how we define it and how we respond to it);

- we are a victim of the circumstances;

- we stay silent.

Why shouldn’t you stay silent sometimes?

Yes, sometimes you can stay silent in a crisis if you are confident that the problem will not become known outside of the company. However, if you are planning to lay off numerous employees, to close some branches or to sell the company, these facts might be hard to conceal. In this case, communications should be prepared in advance and they must take place proactively, not afterwards.

Note. If you realize that something is underway in your company that will definitely attract attention, you can invent in advance a topic that will distract the audience from the main problem. A negative topic will distract whereas a positive one will set off the “but” mechanism: “The company closed 300 branches but saved penguins from an oil spill”. However, this might not work.

How “to catch” the situation in time?

Alerts and sources of information.

Monitoring publications about your company on social media, press or on review sites will allow you to notice “a negative tendency” that might turn into a crisis if left unchecked. Secondly, the right kind of analytics will help you track results of anti-crisis efforts and adapt solutions.

All monitoring systems must be installed and set up beforehand. If your budget allows it, these should be separate monitoring systems such as Scan, Medialogia, Integrum, Youscan, Brand Analytics, ZenDesk etc. If the budget is tight, you can use free Google Alert or cheap Hootsuite.

Risk levels

This section of your anti-crisis strategy should include potential crises that are classified according to risk levels.

The table should indicate risk levels for each point.

For example:

The level of a problem:

1 (the most serious one) — catastrophes, disasters that involved many people such as clients, employees, guests etc.

2 — launching a potentially dangerous product

3 — mass dismissal

4 — negative feedback from a celebrity

5 — feedback on social media (yes, such problems should also be described so that everyone know what to expect)

Risk level for each problem (let’s take point four as an example):

1 (the highest level, all is lost). The shares will crash, the shop will be closed, the customers will turn away, we will all go to prison.

2 we need to recall the product.

3 there will be a wave of negative publicity and feedback on social media and in other sources.

This should be done for each aspect of a potential threat. How this looks in a table:

For each situation you need to prepare a Q&A, a detailed list of uncomfortable, potentially dangerous and unpleasant questions with answers that might be asked by journalists, employees, clients, state authorities and anyone else from the audience.

Here is a list of possible problems that might appear suddenly (it is very brief; your document should certainly include at least 100 cases):

Disasters, emergencies.

Legal disputes:

General

Discrimination of employees or of candidates (yes, we currently have few such cases, only several of them come to mind but their number will grow)

Harassment

Mass lay-offs

Faulty goods

Claims:

Discrimination of employees or of candidates

Faulty or dangerous goods

Mass lay-offs

Harassment

Closure of a company

Aggression, violence on the premises of a company

Death of the СЕО

CEO leaving suddenly

CEO being dismissed

Offensive actions or statements of employees

There is evidence

There are accusations

Recipients of your communications

This section should be carefully thought out and described. Quite often we see cases when the owners define media as the main audience of crisis communication. We’ll make a statement, everyone will understand and stop criticizing us and destroying our business. Or we will send a letter to our clients and they will forgive and forget. This rarely, almost never works. Crisis communication should involve several categories of your audience: employees (and their families), media, investors, shareholders, clients, partners, contractors, friendly media personalities, brand ambassadors, advertisers.

If you miss even one category, all communications will be in vain.

The crisis team

The first list should include everyone responsible for quick and correct communication: PR, client relations department, heads of relevant departments (this is a short list of everyone who must be informed of a crisis before anyone else). The second list — the front line — is an extended list with contacts of lawyers, IT specialists, marketing team etc.

These lists of first contacts must be freely available for everyone. Besides, it is important to indicate for each person the response time, list of questions and a deputy if it is impossible to reach the specialist within three minutes.

Someone who will publicly repent

The higher, the better. A majority stakeholder, a director, a CEO, an official representative or a press secretary. Sure, it is best when this is everyone’s darling with a crystal clear reputation who can deflect all uncomfortable questions or make a joke when necessary, who is confident and used to being in the spotlight. However, this is just an ideal scenario. What you should definitely do when planning an anti-crisis strategy is to conduct for a person responsible for communicating with the audience a training on public speaking, a media training, a training on self-control in unforeseen and crisis circumstances. This person should certainly be knowledgeable about the company’s affairs, the history of decisions, as well as previous crises.

Everyone in the company who participates in communication must also complete such trainings: the HR, the marketing team, client managers etc.

If this is a small company, you are the director and you are responsible for everything, take the training yourself.

Communication channels: internal and external

This section is simple and complicated at the same time. First, when talking about a crisis and taking measures, the business often forgets to inform its employees. It happens sometimes that employees learn about a crisis from media and are very surprised. Alternatively, you take all the necessary measures but you forget to inform the employees and they spread across the industry old information about problems. Or you have found a way to make it up to the clients, you offered them bonuses or gifts but you did not inform the call center and instead of loyal clients who will forgive you and love you again you get aggressive, dissatisfied, betrayed people even though you meant well. So do not forget about internal communication via all possible channels: the intranet, an internal portal, a bulletin board, chats, letters, meetings.

External channels seem to be easier to deal with. Still, you need to define them in advance. How can you reach the audience: through the press, through your own social media, through a website? Which communications should come first? And so on, and so forth.

Response time for different communication channels: primary communication with clients should take place within 30 minutes. This is an axiom. A statement in response to a request from media must be prepared on the same business day or the next morning. The same should be determined for all other channels.

Yes and no

A yes/no table. This section might come as a surprise to some of you but, unfortunately, it happens that you, your superiors and employees express your own point of view on behalf of the company. Whether you are a PR manager, a strategist, a sales manager or the owner, you cannot have your own opinion that you may express on behalf of the company. It happens to us quite often when personal opinion on all issues is expressed without regard for the future of the company. It does not matter in the slightest what you think about clients, harassment, cats, you can express only the position of the company. If you feel you cannot control yourself, delete your social media accounts. It does not matter whether you work for yourself or represent the corporation. When you are the face of a company, you have no personal opinions that might contradict the company’s opinion. Well, sorry. Therefore, there should be clear yes/no answers for you, your employees, your superiors and all stakeholders.

Yes: Harassment is bad.

No: We have to figure who’s really to blame (below you will find examples of reactions to various incidents).

Yes: We do not condone any forms of discrimination. All people should have equal rights and opportunities.

No: We are not saying we condone discrimination but people after 40 might find it difficult to adapt in our company.

Yes:

No:

Fill out this table for all key controversial issues and send it out to all employees.

How we know that the crisis is over

Here you need to develop a vision of a crisis. For example, you take one of a 100 incidents described above and you fantasize what might be deemed the end of a crisis. How will you know that the problem is fading away? There are no more negative publications? The company’s rating on review sites has reached 4? Angry clients have stopped calling you? There is less negativity on social media? A legal dispute is won or a lawsuit is withdrawn?

The original article was published in the “Press-service” magazine, in June 2020

PR Doctor. Areas of special interests: digital, blockchain, cryptocurrency, fintech, startups. Areas of expertise: PR, media relations.