The post-Deepwater Horizon oil spill communications strategy will go on record as one of the biggest public relations blunders ever. What does this have to do with you? After all, you’re probably not in the oil drilling business. So, you may think, “we’re no BP – there’s no way we would ever be caught in a PR disaster.”

While your crisis may not capture the attention of media and world leaders everywhere, even small businesses can be negatively impacted by events that attract attention. With the proliferation of social media, this is even more probable.

Let’s imagine a few worst-case scenarios that can be very real for any company in any business:

  • A fire occurs in your plant and employees are injured.
  • While operating a company-branded vehicle, an employee is texting while driving and hits a school bus full of children.
  • Your release a product with a major defect and word spreads throughout the industry.
  • An employee or former employee commits violence against other employees on your property.
  • Your online sales capability has a security breach, potentially putting your customers’ information at risk.

Whether these potential risks resonate for your company, or might be something completely different, live by these words, “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.”

The key is to plan. When negative attention is on your company, even the coolest heads risk entering reactive mode and making mistakes. The first step is to develop a Crisis Communications Handbook. This handbook will help ensure you will follow important guidelines by thinking through possible scenarios in advance and when you’re calm.

Start by identifying the kinds of events could bring negative attention, and then outline specifics on how it will be handled. Here are some ideas to get started:

  • *Imagine the most knee-knocking questions that could throw you off, and then prepare how you would respond in a Q&A document.
  • *Think about the many different ways people get information, and identify who on your team will update the web site, social media networks, etc.
  • *Make sure each of the responsible parties in the crisis plan has a backup person. Key point people go on vacation.

In the unfortunate event that something happens, be ready to react quickly. Before the age of immediate information, you could take a bit of time formulating the best response to a crisis. Not so anymore. Social media allows stories to spread in mere minutes, so silence is simply not an option. Now, more often than not, we see a crisis of negative sentiment build online first, and then get picked up by traditional media.

Even if your first, response is simply, “We’re currently gathering all the facts and will be issuing a statement shortly,” it’s important to show you care by being responsive when you first learn of the crisis event.

Always tell the truth. Nothing can be more damaging than getting caught in a falsehood or evading a question. Telling the truth is the only way to maintain credibility. It’s also the way to prevent staying in the headlines - companies that only tell part of a story, or spin it, are just opening the door for reporters to find out the other half on their own.

Do you need a lawyer? Consult a lawyer when needed, but don’t listen to them for public relations advice. Tiger Woods listened to the lawyers and look how that turned out. In the case of the texting employee, you could be facing litigation so you would want to speak with your lawyer before making a public statement. However, a statement that is short on facts, speaks in half-truths and is full of lawyer-babble won’t ring true. If your community thinks you’re not genuine, they will turn on you quickly. So, it’s important that any statements have a human quality. Comments such as “our hearts go out to the families” or “our customers are our number one priority, and we value the trust they put in us” must be true.

If the situation is serious, you may want to bring in a professional public relations consultant with experience in crisis communications. The Public Relations Society of America is a great resource and can be found at www.prsa.org.

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