In 1996, Odwalla juice was identified as the source of an E. coli outbreak throughout North America. Sixty people became ill and one child died as a result of Odwalla apple juice consumption. Sales declined by 90 percent and stocks nose-dived. With swift actions and proper crisis communication tactics, the company was able to come out of the crisis with a positive image and was even praised for its reaction.
A crisis of this magnitude has the potential to end a company’s livelihood if handled incorrectly. Although your business may not be as large or publicly visible as Odwalla, it can just as easily be thrust into the spotlight and acquire a damaged reputation. It may never happen to you, but it’s critical that you know how to maintain positive public relations for your company. You can’t know when a crisis may occur, but you should always be ready, just in case.
Develop a crisis communication plan NOW
The time to plan for an emergency is before it happens. Meet with your team now to prepare your crisis communication plan. Elements of the plan should include:
- Form a crisis communication team. Depending upon the size of your organization, your team members will vary. A large company may designate the CEO, a lawyer, public relations manager and other managers with specialized expertise. A smaller company may have just its owner and one key staffer.
- Designate a company spokesperson. One person on your crisis communication team will have to serve as spokesperson to the media, if necessary. It’s ideal to have this spokesperson conduct all interviews whenever possible – it helps convey consistency and confidence, and keeps messages on point.
- Develop key messages. Brainstorm potential crises that could affect your business, then come up with three key messages for each situation. Doing this early will help you identify potential issues in advance, and better prepare your team for an emergency.
- Prepare essential documents. If the media gets involved in your crisis, they’ll need background information on your company. Keep biographies of your executives and fact sheets prepared.
Overwhelmed by the idea of creating this plan? It’s easier than it sounds, but a public relations consultant can be hired to assist in the process. A professional will be able to help you to create a customized crisis communication plan. You can even obtain media training for your company spokesperson to help him or her become more comfortable with the process.
Respond to inquiries
There are three rules in issuing responses that you should always follow:
- Respond immediately. In the past, representatives were urged to respond to a crisis within 24 hours, but today’s media has reduced that window to mere minutes. If you don’t have the first word, a less reliable source will – and that could easily make the situation worse. A simple statement that the company is investigating claims is better than holding back until the next day.
- Never say “no comment.” These are the magic words that will make the media and public suspicious of your intentions. “No comment” is frequently interpreted as “I’m guilty.” Avoid this sentence at all costs.
- Be honest. Lying will always come back to harm the company’s reputation and forever damages the trust of consumers. There are cases when confidential information should not be shared, but it should never be misrepresented.
Make a concerted effort to remedy the situation
Your company must make every effort to resolve a crisis situation, and quickly. After it was confirmed that Odwalla juice contained E. coli, an immediate recall was issued for all products containing apple or carrot juice. They were off of store shelves within 48 hours. Odwalla took responsibility for the situation and took actions to correct it, protecting its reputation.
You may not be responsible for the circumstances that caused your crisis, but it doesn’t matter whose fault it is. All those impacted will care about is that you take immediate action to resolve it. Demonstrate that your company wants to “do right by them” (whoever “them” may be) and fix whatever is wrong, as soon as possible.
Keep tabs on rumors circulating, and address them
Now more than ever, consumers have a voice. They have the power to discuss everything that goes on and spread their message, reliable or not, like wildfire. Customers are blogging, tweeting and commenting – and when your business is on the news, they’re going to discuss it.
Assign a member of your crisis communication team to monitor rumors in the media and online. If misinformation is circulating, do your best to correct it. Issue a statement on your Web site, blog or Twitter page, or issue a news release to provide the right information.
Know your messages, and stay focused on them
When releasing information to the public or media, clarify your message before even beginning to write. It should be clear to you; if not, you can’t expect the public to understand either. Too much background information and technical jargon can muddy communication and make your situation more severe.
When participating in interviews, stick to key messages. Spokespeople should answer questions and reiterate the intended statement. Because crises are usually sudden and unexpected, it’s important that you identify your key messages immediately to ensure that all crisis communication team members know them well, too.
The thought of being in a crisis situation is certainly an intimidating one. It’s easier to not plan ahead and just hope that that it never happens to you. However, being prepared can save your company if a crisis does hit and will put you at ease knowing you have a plan, should the worst happen.
Hiring a public relations professional to help you form your crisis communication plan can relieve some of the anxiety associated with these preparations. And, if a crisis occurs before you’ve had the chance to organize your team, calling a PR expert may be the best the best choice you can make to help you through the process. A firm with experience in crisis communication can facilitate management each of these details and help protect your company’s image.