Crisis communication: Protecting your brand

A crisis can be described an intense, immediate tension. It’s a critical event, which if not handled in an appropriate and timely manner, or is ignored, can turn into a business catastrophe. Let’s be clear – a crisis is different from an issue that needs to be managed. Issue management is about facilitating communication. It’s anticipatory, focused and responds in a planned manner to ameliorate emerging trends or changes that can potentially threaten the foundation of a business.

Issue solutions are strategic, negotiated and reached behind the scenes, not on public stages or on social media platforms. Crises come unannounced with a bang, and require immediate action. They can have unforeseen impacts that seriously jeopardize the company’s assets, profitability and brand loyalty.  When a crisis occurs, quick and detailed communication is critical to minimize tarnishing a company’s image. A crisis communication plan allows a company to bolt from the starting gate, fast and strong.

The problem is that no one wants to plan for a crisis. Business owners assume a ‘Doubting Thomas’ position – i.e. “It won’t happen. Why invest time and money in creating a crisis communication plan that will only gather dust?” Well, a crisis communication plan is insurance. While no one wants to pay an insurance premium, when disaster strikes, insurance coverage is essential. Bottom line: preparing a crisis communication plan is a sound business investment. Below are some guidelines to assist in designing such a plan.

Leadership matters – put a leadership face to the crisis. In 2008, when Canada was in the throes of a Listeriosis outbreak, Michael McCain quickly linked his face to the crisis and publicly acknowledged that his company failed. “Maple Leaf is accountable,” he said. “Here’s our action plan.” Contrast that to the delayed action of St. Michael’s College School when allegations of student sexual abuse arose. It remained silent and didn’t offer its stakeholders any public face for the scandal of November 2018. The response was slow and accountability was lacking.

Be proactive, transparent and accountable. Acknowledge the incident, accept responsibility and apologize. With ‘citizen journalists’ instantly uploading content to blogs and social media channels, reputations can be ruined in nanoseconds. The tenets of any crisis communication are to be proactive, transparent and accountable. So acknowledge the incident, accept responsibility, apologize, take action, communicate your message and move on.

Cooperate: The message and the media matter. Putting one’s head in the sand is not an appropriate strategy when facing a crisis. The Canadian Association of Journalists’ ethics guidelines hold journalists accountable for their professional work. Journalists strive to provide truthful, fair and balanced reporting that gets at the truth and protects the public interest.

McCain’s message was truthful, clear and readily offered to media outlets. Maple Leaf recalled products well beyond those that had tested positive for the Listeria bacterium, contacted all of its direct customers and warehouses and some 87% of warehouses in the Canadian food chain. St. Michael’s skirted media questions and blamed privacy concerns for its lack of communication.

Preparation matters. When St. Michael’s finally showed its face to the public, its reps came across as ill prepared and nervous. When McCain appeared before his accusers, he appeared polished, knew exactly what the message was and didn’t mince his words while looking directly into the camera. Planning and preparation pay off.

Brand matters. Stakeholders and customers own brands. Businesses don’t. St. Michael’s lack of transparency and its inertia created a festering wound that broke a trust relationship with its clients. Maple Leaf took swift action to recall products. The recall want well beyond those products that had tested positive for the Listeria bacterium. To admit to all its customers, warehouses and distributors that it had failed, provided its stakeholders with a sense of security that actually strengthened its brand image. The bottom line is that every business needs a crisis communication plan that fits its business needs.

So, once a crisis happens:

  • Act immediately
  • Tell it all
  • Tell it fast
  • Tell stakeholders what you’ve done and are doing
  • Tell stakeholders when it’s over
  • Get back to work