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Could you retain your reputation in a crisis?

Although a crisis of this magnitude and severity is unlikely to happen to many SMEs, it is still important to be prepared for possible negative scenarios that could realistically affect your business.

One seemingly minor incident, when mishandled, can undo years of hard work, damaging a company’s reputation that has been a long time in the making and impacting drastically on sales. All it can take is an ill-judged, ‘funny’ quip that offends, such as happened recently to a Belfast restaurant when their chalkboard which announced ‘Ya can beat the wife but ya can’t beat a 5 pound lunch!’ was judged to trivialise domestic violence. The eatery quickly removed the sign, apologised and stated that they would be disciplining and retraining the staff member who had placed the sign without management’s knowledge. They also announced a charity event to raise funds for a shelter for victims of domestic abuse. All advisable and correct responses to the situation, however, the chalkboard message has undoubtedly affected the business’s reputation which it will take a long time to repair.

Years ago, only a handful of people would have seen the sign before it was removed but through social media it was available to viewers across the world instantly. This is something that was unexpected and out of management’s control at the time it happened but it will have a lasting effect.

What should you do in advance?

Companies should take the time to consider what possible situations might hit the business before one actually occurs. It is important, at all times, to remember that a customer who feels mistreated or aggrieved by your product and service in the real world has a worldwide audience at their fingertips to which they can vent.

Consider what can happen?

While often hard to predict what could become a ‘crisis’, companies can look at the potential threats to their reputation in both the real world and virtually. There are many different scenarios which vary greatly from company to company and from sector to sector. Research and talking to other team members along with your own knowledge and experience will help you develop a list of possible crises and you may be surprised at how long the list actually is. These can then be broken down by level of severity. If these eventualities are considered in advance, a strategic approach to damage control can be put in place. This can allow a company to manage, rather than flail, its way through a negative story, which can ultimately help to maintain your reputation. This can also help to uncover some areas where actions or training can be implemented to help avoid potential situations.

Should negative attention strike the business, having holding statements and social media responses prepared, which can be amended for the particular circumstances, allows you to respond quickly but in a measured way while you gather information and assess the situation. Initial details given should be minimal and factual, never speculative, and should let people know that you are aware of, and are dealing with, the situation as well as working with any relevant third parties, such as the emergency services.

Who might respond?

Think about who may be approached for a comment. You? Are you media trained? If not, a media training session should help you to be able to confidently convey your message. Your employees? Would they have positive things to say about the organisation? If the answer is no, perhaps a staff education process about the positive aspects of your business and how it is conducted could be undertaken. It is also important to keep all staff informed about what has happened and how you are handling the situation as they are important ambassadors for your business.

Local elected representatives

Do you know your local elected representatives and more importantly, do they know you? In many cases, elected representatives are one of the first ports of call for journalists looking for a comment about a crisis within their constituency, as was the case for the Belfast eatery. If they are aware of what you do, your ethics and mission, then they will have a reference point when deciding on how to comment and may even speak to you first for information. They are much less likely to be negative or misinformed if you have established and nurtured a relationship with them.

Social media

Make sure you have social media guidelines and keep these up to date and ensure all staff are aware of them. New team members need to be briefed too – it can be easy to put this off due to the pressures of daily work but it can make all of the difference. Those posting on social media on behalf of your organisation must fully understand your goals and ethos and you must have full faith in them. It isn’t a junior’s job – it must be undertaken by someone who has good judgement and is appropriately trained. It can be all too tempting to respond quickly…and emotionally, especially online, but you will repent at leisure. Emotive responses are not advised and can escalate a crisis. A measured, calm, well thought out approach is needed when the going gets tough and if the structure of this can be laid out in advance, it makes dealing with a crisis that bit simpler. Where appropriate, move the conversation off line, but bear in mind that any responses may still be shared.

Don’t close the stable door after the horse has bolted; set time aside and consider your crisis communications sooner rather than later. It could make all the difference to safeguarding your firm’s reputation.

Article published by dcp PR Agency, Belfast

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