I've been thinking a lot about crisis communication. What with Roseanne Barr blaming Ambien for her racist tweets aimed at a former White House official and in writing about apology ads by companies like Wells Fargo, Facebook and Uber that have experienced various crises after putting their businesses ahead of customers' best interests.

Crisis communication is a specific part of public relations that involves protecting and defending an individual or organization when their reputation is publicly threatened. And the thing is the crisis might not even be your doing, but you still have to plan for it. I'm thinking of Crock-Pot having to respond to consumer safety concerns after it was blamed for the death of the father in the NBC hit show `This Is Us.' I'm thinking of Amazon's Jeff Bezos having to decide if and how to respond to twitter attacks from President Trump.

A friend and fellow small business owner recently asked me if crisis communication planning is something you do before or after a crisis. My answer: Before! It will cost you a lot more during the event. And by cost I meant not just the actual price of perhaps hiring a crisis communication expert at a moment's notice, but also the cost in the early going to your organization's reputation.

Every company, no matter how big or small, needs a crisis communication plan, even if it's one sheet of paper with emergency phone numbers or roles and responsibilities. When something bad goes down, time is going to be key. The longer it takes you to get your message out, the greater the potential harm to your business. Here are three ways to get started on your crisis communication plan.

1. Anticipate all the bad scenarios.

How can you plan for what you don't know will happen? Oh, you know what can happen.

Many potential crises or things that could go wrong fall into major buckets like cyber security breeches, employee misconduct, death of the company's top leader, natural disasters or terrorist acts that cost lives or hinder operations, negative stories in the media, workplace violence. 

Some of these could happen to any business and some are more apt to happen to others. An online merchant or financial services company will worry more about cyber security than a local lawyer who doesn't conduct business online. But a local merchant might be more concerned about a negative review in the local paper or Yelp.

2. Think about what you can do now.

What can you do to get organized ahead of an event? More than you think.

Put together emergency contact lists or phone trees so that information flows throughout your organization. Come up with lists of who can help you during a crisis event. Decide now who is authorized to speak to reporters and make sure they are trained to do so. 

You might also come up with pre-written emails that you can customize to various situations. When I worked in communications at Wells Fargo, a colleague and I wrote internal -- to employees -- email templates covering a variety of scenarios. We had our managers approve the use of these communications whenever we needed to use them. The beauty of these ready-to-go emails is you don't have to think so hard when events are unfolding and require quick action; you are ready to go.

You could build on this idea to include pre-written talking points, media statements and social media posts that you could put put the finishing touches on when you need them.

3. Imagine how you might respond during an event.

You might take a scenario and play it out in your mind.

Ask yourself things like: When would I use social media and when would I not? What things can I comment on and what can I not? What situation would call for a media statement and which ones would require an interview or press conference. What are the pros and cons of responding to a negative story or bad review? Would I hire an outside firm to help?

What are past events that could recur and what was learned -- what was communicated well and what needs some work?

All might not go according to plan and you might not think of everything now, but at least you are thinking. Give it some thought now, because you won't have time to later when your reputation is at stake.

Published on: Jun 11, 2018
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