The growth and development of the executives who help lead your company are vital to its successthey drive your mission as they share and embody the company's core values. To that end, Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) hosts a Key Executive Forum (KEF) for the executive staff of member companies, where high-ranking employees from multiple organizations use the gestalt method of communication to share professional experiences and serve as a sounding board for fellow Forum participants. The value of a KEF for business owners lies in Forum providing a safe, confidential space in which their executives can learn and grow with a peer group. Jennifer Adler is director of public relations at The James Agency, an EO member-owned company in Scottsdale, in addition to serving as moderator of her EO Arizona KEF. Here’s an example of a topic she might share to benefit members of her Forum:

When people learn that I’m in public relations, they assume it’s a glamorous career of schmoozing with media, hanging out in TV station green rooms and hosting swanky events with champagne and celebrities. While it’s tempting to let them believe that’s the case, contrary to public opinion, PR often involves preparing clients for unexpected events that could damage their brand or even ruin their company altogether. More often than not, PR involves reputation management, which is a high-stakes and high-stress job.

Since the very nature of any crisis is that it is usually unexpected and beyond your control, attempting to manage one can be daunting. While a crisis can indeed be detrimental to a company’s reputation, the way you handle it is arguably more critical than the crisis itself and can make or break your brand. Although most crises can’t be prevented, establishing a solid crisis communications plan beforehand ensures that you’re as prepared as possible when a sticky situation arises.

Crisis communications is critical business, but when well handled, it can mitigate damage to your brand and even result in favorable media coverage.

Here are six steps we share with clients to ensure they have a well-defined crisis strategy in place before the waters get choppy:

1.    Plan, prepare and strategize

Although it seems counterintuitive to plan for the unexpected, having a policy in place is essential for successful crisis management and can save your team a lot of time, confusion and stress in the heat of the moment when every second counts.

Develop an approved protocol and action plan that explicitly outlines your internal communication and approval process, as well as the chain of command. To do so, we ask our clients the following questions:

  • Who on your team must be notified of a crisis, and in what order?
  • Who is in charge of your company’s crisis communications efforts?
  • Who is approved to communicate updates to your team?
  • Who is the approved media spokesperson?
  • Who is the ultimate decision maker with final approval when it comes to crisis management decisions?

2.    Role play

Specific types of crises may be more likely than others, depending on your industry and type of business. For example, if you’re a restaurant owner, it could be an E. Coli outbreak or an unappealing item found in your food. Spend time thinking about potential crises your company might face. Once you’ve identified possible crisis situations that could negatively impact your business, outline how you would ideally handle them. Craft general key messaging that can be customized to fit specific scenarios and used, when necessary, down the road.

3.    Control the message

Message and delivery are the core of crisis communications. When an event occurs that negatively impacts your brand, it is imperative to respond quickly, thoughtfully, truthfully and empathetically. It is human nature to be emotional and defensive during a crisis, but you will be well served by taking the time to get the facts straight and craft an informed and appropriate response. Always be transparent and honest. Acknowledge both that the incident happened and the role your company had in it. Sympathize with those who were affected and do everything within your power to right the wrongs.

4.    Avoid social media mishaps

Social media protocol should be clearly outlined in your crisis communications plan. One of the first steps in the event of a crisis should be canceling scheduled posts. Nothing appears more insensitive than a scheduled post being pushed out to promote an offering or service when your brand is embroiled in a crisis. Instead, social media posts should be limited to statements addressing the crisis and thoughtful responses to your followers’ comments and concerns. No matter what, don’t engage in a heated online debate or defensively respond to accusatory comments.

5.    Recap

After the dust settles, you’ll have the opportunity to assess the event objectively and evaluate how you handled the situation. What did your team do well? What areas may have been handled better? What did you learn as a result? How might you modify your crisis communications procedure to more thoroughly prepare for future situations? Be honest with yourself and use any shortfalls as opportunities for improvement the next time around.

6.    Recover

Following your debrief, begin the recovery process by identifying how you might shed a favorable light on your company. What positive stories can you share about your brand? Whether it is a gesture of goodwill or heroic act that resulted from the crisis, or something that is completely unrelated but made a positive impact on the community, publicizing your company’s good news will help push down any negative coverage in internet search results.

When struggling with how to handle or recover from a crisis, consulting a professional is often the best course of action. Having a PR team on-hand and a crisis communications plan in place are smart precautions to safeguard your brand. In addition, an ongoing PR strategy can be especially effective in rebuilding a damaged brand.

Published on: Aug 14, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.