By the time you hear the thunder, it's too late to build the ark. Especially in times of crisis.
That's why Toyota's repeatedly bungled PR efforts should be considered teachable moments in crisis management.
Regardless of industry or size, every organization is vulnerable to crisis. So every business owner and CEO should routinely ask: If a crisis put everything we stood for on the line, how would we respond?
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Without a crisis plan, you risk appearing disorganized, defensive or downright incompetent when a crisis occurs.
How do you plan for a crisis? First, start with "negative-creative thinking" by a team of top managers, human resources staff, PR and legal counsel. It's a good idea to include outside PR counsel, even if you have in-house PR staff. Outside counsel can more objectively point out when the emperor has no clothes.
Next, discuss scenarios that could throw your organization into crisis mode. Consider possibilities such as embezzlement or fraud, sexual misconduct by an employee, product liability, industrial accident or hazardous-materials spill, proposed regulatory or legislative changes and litigation.
Role-play "what ifs" for the most likely scenarios, and be careful you don't kill the messenger. Honestly explore any potentially damaging situations.
Consider sudden "Big Bang" crises as well as smoldering ones: Issues that could affect consumer safety, financial stability or public trust. Smoldering issues can quickly become the Big Bang crisis of tomorrow's headlines. Toyota knew about accelerator problems last fall, yet the company didn't earnestly address the issue until recent weeks. By then, Toyota was drowning in a global flood of bad press.
Once you've written the plan, review, and update it at least least twice a year.
Tell it first. Tell it all. Tell it fast.
How the media portrays your handling of the crisis at the outset defines how the public perceives your story. So, get in front of the story. Maintain an ongoing flow of information throughout the crisis, both to the media and to employees, customers and government officials. Use your Web site, social media, e-mail and regular mail, personal meetings with key opinion leaders, and issue-oriented advertising to convey your message.
Give your spokesperson media training before any crisis occurs, when you aren't facing a feeding frenzy of reporters. Preferably, your spokesperson should be the CEO; audiences want to hear from the person ultimately responsible for the organization's actions. CEO reassurances help maintain credibility, prevent panic and restore public confidence in the organization.
In any crisis, your organization will be the victim or the culprit. If you're the victim, you'll likely have public sympathy behind you. If you're the culprit, admit it and apologize as soon as possible, because the truth will come out sooner or later.
The public wants to see organizations take responsibility for their actions, show empathy for the victims and have a plan for solving the problem. Apologies go a long way in rebuilding public trust. So does saying: "We're taking corrective action to ensure this doesn't happen again." Such commitment makes it harder for people to continue attacking you, at least as long as you keep your promise.
Despite their dangers, remember this: Crises also offer opportunities. You can earn tremendous respect by responding quickly and telling your story honestly, candidly and persuasively. That's the essence of good communications, in good times and in bad.