By Jennifer Tolkachev

Warren Buffett famously said, "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently." Those two simple sentences sum up the approach businesses of every kind, shape, and size should take when it comes to protecting its reputation, and thereby its existence. From a public relations perspective, doing things differently doesn’t just mean acting with integrity to avoid scandal, it also means preparing for the worst-case scenario, despite your good intentions. Business leaders, it’s time to heed Buffett’s advice and do things differently by implementing a solid crisis communications plan sooner rather than later.


Don’t Wait for a Crisis to Happen. Plan Ahead.

Realistically, it's not a matter of if a crisis will happen, it's a matter of when it will happen. How you respond can be the difference between retaining your good standing with minimal damage to your company (not to mention your employees, partnerships, customers, and shareholders) and losing everything. In the age of social media where anyone and everyone can be held under the microscope and go viral in the worst way for even the slightest misstep, it’s more important than ever to be prepared to deal with a crisis before it happens. So don’t wait! Devise a solid crisis response strategy now by putting some standard PR practices into action.

Build a Crisis Communications Team

First things first. You can’t adequately handle a PR crisis without appropriate spokespeople who can effectively communicate about it publicly. Establish a crisis communications team that can mobilize and respond quickly. This small team of senior-level executives should ideally be led by the CEO and include the highest level marketing, communications, and/or public relations employee(s) on staff, as well as any other executives who excel at public speaking and a general counsel if one exists.

If your company does not have a senior-level PR employee, consider retaining an outside firm to help. Once you’ve established your team, make it clear that these individuals are the only ones authorized to speak on your company’s behalf in the event of a crisis.

Anticipate Crises: Identify, Adapt, Avoid

Once you’ve established your crisis communications team, conduct several brainstorming sessions to identify potential crisis scenarios. Think outside the box and don’t be afraid to get creative with this. The more scenarios you can think of, the more prepared you’ll be to address these potential crises and possibly avert them altogether. After you’ve identified potential problems that may arise, evaluate your corporate policies and business processes to see if any changes can be made to avoid these pitfalls.

You’ll be surprised by how much you learn about areas in need of improvement within your organization as you go through this process. By planning ahead, you’ll discover that you’re not only preparing to deal with or avoid a crisis, but you’re also detecting ways to improve your business at the same time.

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Seek Out Guidance and Training from the Pros

Now that you have a crisis team in place and you’ve identified and addressed potential crisis scenarios, it’s time to get some outside help. After all, what’s the point of designating a team of spokespeople if they don’t know what to say or how to respond to media inquiries once an actual crisis occurs? Don’t rely on the fact that your team has already done plenty of successful media interviews.

There’s a big difference between promoting your organization through proactive PR and preserving its reputation during a crisis. Plenty of seasoned spokespeople have been skewered by the press during times of trouble. The last thing you want to do is make the situation worse due to a lack of proper training, so be sure to seek out guidance before a crisis arises. Hire experts to train your team on how to handle tricky situations and effectively respond during a PR crisis.

Develop a Policy, Then Communicate It

You have a crisis team, you’ve run through crisis scenarios, and you’ve been trained on what to do in a crisis. Now use all of that knowledge to develop an official corporate crisis policy. The policy should list all members of your crisis response team and the roles each of them will play during a crisis. It should also include step-by-step instructions on what your company will do in the event of a crisis (for example: put out a holding statement; gather as much information as possible; formulate the company’s position; develop talking points; make a formal statement; do media interviews, if necessary)

Once the policy is finalized and approved by your executive board, disseminate it internally to all of your employees. Be sure to let them know that, in the event of a corporate crisis, only official spokespersons should speak to the media and all media inquiries should be immediately directed to the designated crisis communications team. Also, be aware that some crises can affect your employees and disrupt the ability of your workplace to function appropriately. Include your internal workforce as one of your target audiences when developing crisis response plans.

Be Ready at All Times

This may go without saying, but PR pros cannot emphasize it enough. Be ready for a PR crisis at all times. You never know when something may happen that suddenly throws your corporate image into a negative light. From a bad product review to a worse-than-expected earnings report, stay on your toes. Being ready to address problems and provide a positive spin in a timely manner will yield the best results.

Beware of the Unexpected

Despite your best efforts to plan, prepare, avoid, train, and be ready for a PR crisis, you cannot anticipate every kind of negative situation. Unfortunately, the most unpredictable crises are often the most devastating. These are usually situations that involve highly visible scandals, such as an embarrassingly offensive public comment, a criminal act, or an accident that involves loss of life.

You can never fully prepare for these kinds of crises, but all of the preparation you’ve done provides you with a good foundation. In these cases, however, it’s prudent to quickly hire a crisis specialist—and sometimes even legal counsel—to help you navigate the most difficult situations.

Revisit and Update Annually

Now that you’ve taken all of the appropriate steps to prepare for a PR crisis, be sure to revisit your plans, strategies, and policies on an annual basis, and update them accordingly. Just as your business changes over time, your crisis strategy must stay up-to-date to remain effective.

If a spokesperson leaves the company, another one must take that person’s place and be trained appropriately. Company growth or changing business processes may open you up to new potential vulnerabilities, so continue brainstorming potential crisis scenarios and adjust processes and policies as needed.

Treat PR crisis planning as any other important company process or policy. After all, you’ve spent years building a company with a sterling and revered reputation. Do everything in your power to preserve it.

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Jennifer Tolkachev

About the author

Jennifer Tolkachev heads the PR department at SmartBug Media. She has nearly 25 years of experience in public relations, media relations, corporate communications, and project management, gaining strategic expertise from working for agencies, in-house, and running her own consulting business. Former clients have included a variety of B2B companies as well as tech giants, global non-profits, celebrities, and a United States Senator. Read more articles by Jennifer Tolkachev.

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