The principles of crisis management are similar for small and large businesses. What’s different are the economics – the cost of preparation, including the time it takes, for instance – and the resources of small businesses.
A pragmatic way for small businesses to prepare a crisis management plan is to, firstly, scope the five worst case scenarios you could face; those which would have the most significant financial impact on the business and/or which are most likely to happen.
Then it’s about doing everything you can to prepare for these crises, including how you would react to them. This includes:
- your attitude to them
- mechanisms of communication you would use to mitigate crisis impact (e.g. media statement; phoning some key media)
- strategic approaches you could apply including asking trusted, credible and influential stakeholders to speak out on your behalf.
So even if these situations never occur, your business has developed the processes and the muscle to deal with a crisis.
Aspects of this post have been used in the recently published book, Well Spun: Big PR and Social Media Ideas for Small Business, by Amber Daines, Director of Bespoke Communications and an experienced professional communicator.*
Preparation is critical for effective crisis management
In the words of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani in relation to the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York, “When I was first at the site, I said, we don’t have a plan for this but we’ll do the best we can. Afterwards, I realised that by over-preparing for other things like terrorist bomb threats and blackouts, we had indeed prepared.”
Preparation, therefore, is the key to any business dealing satisfactorily with a crisis. Importantly, it’s not a matter of if, but when, a crisis will occur because it will happen to every business.
As soon as a crisis occurs, make sure you get all the facts. Without all the facts you can’t make educated decisions. Changing decisions and approaches as facts come to light in a crisis is the reality of how these situations transpire, but minimising the surprises also minimises the ‘nightmare factor’.
The responses a business will have in relation to a crisis can vary from complete denial to complete acceptance and apology – and everything in between. It’s important to get legal advice if you are involved in a crisis.
But consider how your response will impact on your reputation and the achievement of your business objectives long-term. Once, it was de facto for lawyers to get in the way of organisations trying to communicate relatively transparently in a crisis communication situation, enflaming the situation and profoundly deteriorating stakeholder relationships.
This is not as common these days, but it remains a risk. Just as, of course, communicating without prudence and rushing to admit fault entails risk. There is a balance that needs striking and, generally, experience is the telling factor in getting it right or wrong. Which doesn’t help SMEs much, but there you have it!
The sub-text of this is, yes, it is important to know where you stand legally on a range of crisis-related issues, including public statements. Equally, however, don’t let lawyers force you into speaking about the crisis in a manner which will unnecessarily undermine your reputation, or your ongoing ability to achieve business objectives.
Sometimes, for instance, it’s best to accept responsibility, apologise and move on, even when the crisis is not entirely your fault because the public perception that the business was responsible for the crisis can be more ‘real’ than the actual facts.
In the fog of a crisis it can be hard to see this, but sometimes it’s best to take the hit and in five years the crisis will be seen as a glitch. If you don’t manage the situation effectively, however, you may not be in business at all in five years.
Speaking clearly, consistently and credibly in a crisis
Doing media training will help you articulate yourself during a crisis and will also have benefits in addition to media liaison. Without media training, unless you are already experienced talking to the media (or are some sort of natural genius) you will screw it up.
Media have very specific needs and they need to receive information in short, sharp and very articulate bites. You need to be properly trained to be able to do that.
You also need to consistently use positive language and stick to your key messages. It can be a challenge to get your key messages across and at the same time acknowledge and answer questions. Try hard not to say no comment or ignore a question, particularly now social media commentary has the potential to rip an organisation apart.
There are times when “no comment” (or an equivalent) is the only viable option, but it’s not a good look and you should prepare other options and, where possible, bridge the answer into one of your positive messages.
You also need to use a consistent spokesperson, which in a small organisation is usually the boss. If the boss is not good at public speaking, go for someone senior who can articulate calmly and consistently and in a likeable manner.
Also remember just because a journalist calls, it doesn’t mean you have to answer them then and there. It’s nearly always possible to promise to get back to them:
- Find out what the journalist specifically wants to know about
- In the interim, think about your the questions, their underlying issues and your messaging
- Consider the ramifications of your answers and further questions built on your answers which could blindside you.
Crisis and communication: opportunities
Any crisis will draw value out of the reputation bank the business has built up, emphasising the importance of ongoing, proactive and positive stakeholder relations, which is what public relations entails.
It is imperative a review takes place following a crisis and lessons learned are incorporated into standard business practice. And don’t forget to consider how the crisis has opened up opportunities to more proactively build relationships with stakeholders you have not engaged effectively with before.
Have you had experience in helping SMEs manage a crisis? Do you have a story to tell? What way do you think SMEs should prepare for a crisis?
*Well Spun: Big PR and Social Media Ideas for Small Businessis by Amber Daines, Director of Bespoke Communications and a 16-year-veteran of all things media. Amber’s goal is to help small to medium sized enterprises boost their media profile without making the usual pitfalls such as bombarding journalists with irrelevant stories, investing too heavily in social media activities that don’t fit your business type or being unprepared for a media interview.