What happens when a crisis hits your business and you are thrown into the media spotlight? When you’re busy running your business, a PR crisis can put you under pressure and make you feel unclear as to the way forward. Compared to larger companies, small businesses typically have little experience of dealing with the press, will not have been media trained, and are unlikely to have a documented crisis management plan in place.
PR and crisis management experts at the Federation of Small Businesses answer some of the most frequently asked questions when a PR crisis hits.
A bad story has broken about my business. The press is calling me for comment. Do I have to speak to them?
The absolute golden rule in crisis management is to avoid the phrase ‘no comment’ or to refuse to speak to the press altogether. However, it can be a challenging experience to speak to the press as a crisis breaks as you may well be ill prepared for their line of questioning and a careless or off-hand comment can exacerbate the situation. The solution to this as a crisis breaks is to rely on the written word. We advise clients to use holding statements at the outset of the crisis. Big businesses use this tactic, so why shouldn’t a small business?
A press holding statement is normally a short single-page statement which can be read out or issued to the press by email in response to direct media enquiries about a story which is pitching you and / or your organisation into the media spotlight.
Using statements like this helps avoid the need to adopt a ‘no comment’ stance or to avoid media questions altogether, which might give the appearance of evasion and this could imply guilt. It helps an organisation look like it’s willingly co-operative with the media and is happy to respond to any and all press enquires in a timely fashion and, in the same manner, it avoids the need to enter into question-and-answer sessions. It puts forward your case as sympathetically and objectively as possible until such time as it can be developed further.
How do I keep the business name and my name out of the press? Can I get an injunction to stop them?
Keeping a business name out of the press during a crisis is difficult. Injunctions will only be given in exceptional circumstances and not on the basis that you simply want to avoid bad publicity. Also, the use of injunctions can antagonise the press when a better strategy is to try and make the media your ally rather than your enemy. By appearing open, transparent and cooperative you will make the business appear credible and responsive to the crisis in a good way. Looking confrontational and evasive is not a good image.
Can I lose my job and my business over this?
The honest answer to this is yes. A PR crisis, if not managed properly, could prove terminal to the business and with it your own job. There is a spiral effect on a business during a crisis which can affect so many areas of its operations:
- Customers may stop buying your product or service
- Trade customers like retailers may delist your products
- Staff morale might collapse and it could become difficult to recruit
- A licence to operate might be withdrawn
- Banks and investors could lose confidence in the business and withdraw support
If problems like this continue to mount, it’s easy to see how crisis can bring down a business. However, the aim of good crisis management is to ensure the business is in a better place when the crisis is over than it was before it arose. In a crisis, be aware of the danger, but recognise the opportunity. Always take the positive view, instead of thinking of a crisis as a disaster, and use the learnings from the situation to make the business stronger and better.
What are the trends in crisis management?
The biggest trend effecting crisis management as a discipline is the emergence of social media as a platform for expressing views and opinions in real time. In truth, social media has made crisis management increasingly difficult. Extreme views expressed freely by ‘trolls’ and posts from anonymous sources can be vile and difficult to counter.
Social media chatter during a crisis is hard to control. All the major platforms have reporting mechanisms to get posts taken down, but in truth it’s hard to have posts removed quickly unless it’s very clearly libellous or the content is obviously racist, homophobic, threatens violence or what might be described as a hate crime.
Developing a good social media strategy during a crisis can be extremely challenging. Day-to-day judgements need to be made as to whether to leave social media chatter alone, respond to individual posts is some way or generically to use press holding statements as a line of response.
What are the issues impacting crisis management?
The most important issue to understand is that crisis management is not solely a media relations exercise. Whilst the press and broadcast media are an important conduit, and good media relations is essential, communication with your key stakeholders in order to keep them onside during a crisis is even more important.
Some years ago, a company within the food and drink sector with a globally recognised branded product, undertook a global product withdrawal when there are was a major health scare when one of its contents was said to be possibly carcinogenic. Over several months the product was reformulated and repackaged. Millions were spent on a worldwide consumer advertising and PR campaign ahead of the product relaunch.
However, when the product came back on the market it was clear the company had failed to communicate effectively with one key market, retailers, many of whom had stacked the shelves with their own branded alternative and were reluctant to restock the company’s reformulated product when it came back on the market. It was an object lesson in bad crisis management.
It’s vital to remember who your key target audiences and stakeholders are during a crisis and communicate clearly with them. Don’t just focus on media relations activity. Crisis management is about common sense, remaining calm and clear in your thinking and about leadership. It’s about what so many small business owners have already in running their businesses so successfully. It’s all about good management.