Six ways to prepare for a crisis before it hits

By Jackie Kolek
January 2017 issue, page 22

In an era of always-on digital communications and the ability to instantly share information, opinion and “fake news” around the world, organizations of all stripes need to rethink how they prepare for a reputational crisis. Whether it’s a plaintiff’s lawsuit, a product recall or cyber attack, a company’s good standing now faces more risks than ever.

To protect their brand, their business partners and their customers/clients, companies need to be prepared to handle a crisis before it hits so they can not only manage negative news, but effectively neutralize it. Here are some tips on how to stay ahead of the game:

Check your digital footprint … often

Believe it or not, even today some companies don’t check their digital footprint. To start, simply perform a Google search on your company and its senior leaders. Do your search results represent the positive aspects of your company, your leaders’ accurate points of view and other great content? If not, you have some work to do. Without positive content that’s search-optimized filling your search results, it will be much harder to push down negative news when a crisis hits.

If you know a lawsuit or other problem is imminent, start immediately to build out a robust online footprint that can potentially mitigate negative stories. And make sure you share your positive content via your organization’s social channels.

Plan for a microsite

Many crises are so complex that it’s almost impossible to respond directly to myriad questions and accusations. You can manage this process more efficiently by planning a crisis microsite before trouble hits. A microsite can be built in advance as a “dark” or non-functioning site, and then launched when the crisis happens. Microsites can contain accurate company background, basic information about the crisis, FAQs and other content, all on one hub that lives on your organization’s server. As issues pop up, you can direct stakeholders to the microsite for answers without directly engaging with them. For example, if your social media monitoring spots a concerned customer tweeting, “Will this crisis drive your company into bankruptcy,” your best response would be: “We appreciate your concerns around this difficult situation. For accurate background and information, please visit our microsite.”

Consider digital reputation management

Through a combination of keyword analytics, a technical audit, content optimization, social media content development and paid support (search-engine marketing), you can potentially displace negative search results. One key to this is developing strong content that will help keep negative content from appearing on page one of the search results during a crisis.

Develop scenario planning

Surround yourself with a team of legal and communications pros to develop a scenario plan outlining any potential crises, their impacts and your planned responses. Combine this with a constituent matrix that details all relevant audiences, main concerns, key messages for each audience, who will communicate with these audiences and what communication platforms you will use. This ensures everyone involved knows who will answer stakeholder concerns and how.

Train your experts

Consider holding presentation training and media training sessions for senior leaders who will be spokespeople during a crisis. This job requires a unique set of skills far beyond traditional media interviews or employee town halls. Use these sessions to simulate negative questions and to ensure spokespeople are responding in an authentic, empathic, compassionate way, and with the right messages.

Connect with key influencers

When a crisis is imminent, make sure to build relationships with key influencers. These could include local government officials if the crisis is regional and prominent third-party experts who have a significant following. Media will often call on these influencers to comment, and you want them to know your company’s point of view. When you meet with these influencers in advance, inform them of the situation and the remedial steps the company has taken. This makes it more likely they’ll support you during tough times.

Every crisis situation is different, but these are best practices I’ve gleaned from working with dozens of clients in similar situations. It’s critical to remember that ample preparation keeps everyone focused and takes much of the fear out of crisis communications.

Jackie Kolek is Partner and Managing Director of Peppercomm.