From risk to crisis: 10 ways to prepare … and handle it

By Pieter Cronje, an independent consultant.

It’s a fine day in the CEO’s office. Results just in look good. The shareholders will be pleased. Analysts and news media will hear a good story. That long-awaited acquisition will now surely speed up. A telephone call followed by a confirmatory e-mail shatters everything.

By Pieter Cronjé, an independent consultant.
By Pieter Cronjé, an independent consultant

A nasty social media campaign about a company director named in a fraud syndicate is plunging the company and brand name into reputational mud. The good results will be drowned out. It’s like an aircraft hurtling down in a tailspin. How will we pull up from this nosedive? How can it take years of painstaking excellence, hard work and service to build a brand and a few hours to shame it? How is this fair?

It’s not. That’s why it’s called a crisis. Many companies have plans and procedures for this – on file. Not many of their leaders are truly and properly prepared when it strikes.

Dealing with the legal, financial and trading fall-out is only one part of the recovery plan that must kick in fast. The true survival kit now is the ability to communicate credibly, persuasively and timeously both inside and outside the company as well as cool, calm leadership. Companies who are prepared and get it right can retain customer loyalty, even empathy. Those who handle their crisis poorly may look back on a once thriving business.

Here are 10 steps to prepare for and respond to a social media crisis:

Prepare (especially in good times!). What are your risks? How likely are they? (Chance in a million, or a sure bet?) Use social media tools to continuously scan the environment before a reputation issue arises. If it hits, what is the impact on every aspect of your business? How do you avoid, minimise or manage the impact? Which person is responsible? (Single-point accountability works.)

Try to avoid them. Prevention is better than cure. Use education, awareness, training and information to minimise risks. Train and sensitise your staff to potential issues around social media. Incentivise and reward good practices.

Have a simple, comprehensive and detailed recovery plan. Who informs whom, who leads, who decides; what are the procedures, the resources and logistics required; and what are the standby and contingency plans ‘B’ and ‘C’?

Have a capable planning and response team. It should include: the right executive as team leader (someone who knows the business – but who also understands social media); your communication expert (communication must be planned at the source of decision-making, not after the fact); the subject expert(s) dealing with the matter (they have core information and knowledge); and a legal expert (for any legal liability or consideration).

Give them a clear mandate and job description. Build collective experience in risk and reputation management, contingency planning and crisis management; advise and warn the CEO; collate and verify all relevant information; analyse the problem, offer action or solution options with risks to make an informed decision; coordinate and integrate operational responses; and follow the agreed communication strategy.

Have a solid communication plan, including a social media strategy. If there is an official communication and information vacuum, viral social media attacks, outrage, speculation, criticism and confusion will fill the vacuum. Inappropriate or delayed communication will draw criticism and unfavourable media coverage. The plan should include objectives, consistent and aligned messages, target audiences, communication channels, print and electronic, and the combination and integration of those channels, timing and budgets.

Have a clear communication protocol. Tell your staff first – customers, family and friends will ask them; make them informed ambassadors, not clueless critics; use a single, mandated, experienced spokesperson for all public information and updates; and tell the truth immediately – and facts as they unfold. Agree on interaction with relevant external agencies where necessary, e.g. emergency or police services.

Pace yourself – this may be a marathon, not a sprint. It’s pointless having all hands on deck for 48 hours before everyone collapses, exhausted, at the same time. Space and schedule response teams. Plan for capacity and a possible IT or communications failure, and have external resources on standby.

Give and get calm leadership. If people are losing their heads, someone has to keep his or hers and lead. Use your leaders – those who are calm, humble, learning, sharing, who can make decisions, who know they don’t have to be smart at everything and who can strengthen their team with the skills they lack.

Debrief. It is human nature to heave a sigh of relief and sleep it all off after a social media crisis. Wrong. While it is still fresh in your memory, debrief. Ask: What went right? (Keep on doing and improving it); What went wrong? Why? (Rectify the mistakes, do something different, ask for help); What can we learn from this? (Embed those lessons for the future).

A company that has all the above in place, can emerge with its reputation and brand intact – possibly even stronger.

Communication works like medical aid or insurance cover – if you think about it only when there is a crisis, it is too late.

 Pieter Cronjé is an independent consultant in communication, marketing and business strategy, and adviser to clients of Atmosphere Communications.