Crisis Management: Your Community Track Record May Be Your Best Crisis Protection: Crisis planning
One of my clients emerged intact from a potentially disastrous crisis and I want to tell you about it. You will want to know about this case – not because I provided some slick silver-bullet advice (I didn’t) – but because the client created the positive outcome. Let me say that again. The client created the positive outcome, and there are powerful lessons for all of us.
First the high points. This was a major league crisis in the public eye. Unless you were on scuba off the Great Barrier Reef, you heard about it. Reporters covered the incident like a blanket. If it were a hurricane, my client was the eye of the storm.
And yet, the intense news coverage was even-handed both during the event and for weeks afterward. Reporters investigated without cynicism, without that “fire in the belly” they get when they detect something amiss for which someone should be held accountable. An exhaustive follow-up newspaper article several weeks later was benign.
Concurrently, public officials’ comments were supportive and empathetic. Businesses stepped forward to assist without prompting.
While this favorable reaction played out, the client started thanking me by saying, “Rick, we would not have received this kind of response without your assistance.” As much as I wanted to take credit, I knew the truth of it and respectfully disagreed.
“On the contrary,” I said, “This good will is entirely of your own making.” This was no false modesty on my part. The satisfactory end of this crisis was the client’s reward for years of building a stellar reputation. Let me repeat. The satisfactory end of this crisis was the client’s reward for years of building a stellar reputation.
I have never been more impressed by how, when immersed in a crisis, good will and public support can come to the rescue simply because you have wonderful standing in the community.
Let me elaborate. When I parachuted into the crisis I did not know what to expect having never worked with this company. My first clue that this was a do-the-right-thing operation came quickly. While a camera crew waited impatiently in the lobby for a comment, the president and I met for the first time. Nevertheless, without hesitation, he immediately embraced my first recommendation to reassure everyone with words and deeds including taking care of any victims. More unstinting good works followed without vacillation or apparent concern for cost. Most of it came without nudging from me.
The next day brought the outpouring of community support. On their own volition, companies and the chamber of commerce stepped forward to help. Business reporters already familiar with the company and its unassuming low-key president probed insistently, but gently, for facts. There almost seemed a presumption of innocence by the journalists, and you have no idea how rare that is (or perhaps you do). The treatment was as though a friend was hurt.
So what does this have to do with you the reader? It is the latest powerful illustration of an important principle. Building a good institutional reputation is the equivalent of putting money in the public relations bank, a hedge against potential bad times. Then, when crisis erupts (which 90% of CEO’s anticipate and only 50% prepare for) you can make withdrawals from those earlier deposits of good will.
In view of this latest crisis example, you may want to reconsider any inclinations to keep your business out of the limelight. Look at it another way. Operating quietly and profitably with a low profile means you have no public image. Your image is neither plus nor minus, a neutral. No one thinks ill of you because no one thinks of you at all. You are a corporate cipher.
Now suppose crisis strikes. Something embarrasses your business or institution in the public eye. With no previous positive public perception to offset the bad news, presumptions of guilt and journalistic cynicism are more likely. As a former reporter, I cannot overemphasize how quickly and harshly journalists and non-business-oriented news consumers will accuse you of wrongdoing in their minds when they have no other basis on which to judge.
So what should you do about this? I suggest that you increase awareness of your business with these strategies:
1. Become part of the community fabric
Weave your business into the community fabric. Find altruistic causes and support them. Hitch your wagon to a mission that matters to you. Look for ways to immerse yourself and your colleagues in the issues of concern. You engage in good works while giving your business an identity.
2. Raise your positive profile
Seek positive news coverage. If you know what interests readers and viewers and how to connect your business with those fascinations and concerns then you are more likely to attract priceless press attention – the equivalent of wonderful free advertising.
3. Finally, it still boils down to “do the right thing.”
Even if you cannot find the time or inclination to do as I urge you to do, at least do the right and honorable thing in all ways. This fundamental was just driven home big-time to me in the case of a would-be client. He once approached me about improving his public image in the midst of a crisis. However, we did not work together because he said he could not act on my recommendations. I wished him well, and moved on. Recently, I read that he had been indicted. Now there is a real PR problem.