The day you realize that you need a crisis strategy is usually the day you have a crisis. It's rare for small business owners to think about how to handle a crisis when they aren't in crisis mode. Having a strategy in place, especially when it comes to public relations, is absolutely necessary. With the help of the Internet, a negative story can be widespread in a matter of minutes, leaving no time to formulate a response on the spot.
If you already have a plan on how to respond to a problem, however, you have a better chance of making sure that your side is heard and reducing the impact of a negative situation.
Think Worst Case Scenario
It's not easy to think of every potential crisis ahead of time — there are just too many variables. But you can put a general plan into place and even draft a few 'fill in the blank' statements that will let you get a head start.
Your strategies can typically go one of two ways: First, if a member of the media already has a piece of negative news, you'll need to respond to it quickly. Second, if it's more a matter of time until somebody gets negative information, you'll need to find a way to release that information yourself. When possible, it's useful to build time into your response planning for investigation. You may not immediately know all the details of a situation, and may need to find more information.
Set up a list of resources for your crisis situations: who to call, which templates to use, and other information you're going to need close at hand. Don't count on being able to remember anything. After all, it may be a stressful situation where you can't take anything for granted.
Get It in Writing
Write out a generalized approach to how you want to handle a crisis: how you want to release information, who is responsible for talking to the press, and if there's a reporter who you would be willing to give a scoop about your crisis to. Have general policies on the sort of tone you want to set in your responses. If there are any particular weaknesses in your business with the potential to cause problems down the road, gather information about those weaknesses. Once you have a written plan, it's worthwhile to take it to a public relations consultant and get some feedback.
It's usually better to create your own plan (and then get advice on it) than rely on something crafted by someone outside your company. The fact is that a consultant can't know all the details about your business. Just knowing the potential weak spots ahead of time can help you put together information that will be necessary during a response.
You may also need to sit down with your employees and give them an overview of your crisis response plan. They need to know who to refer questions to, what constitutes a crisis in your view, and when to get you out of bed to handle problems. If you have a particular person in your organization tasked to keep track of what's being said about your company through tools like Google Alerts, she should have a way to communicate that information to you, as well as prioritize anything that could become a problem.
Go Looking for Trouble
You want to be the first person to know about any potential problem. Whether or not that's actually possible, you need to make sure that you're in the loop on everything and that potential problems are brought to your attention. Because something that doesn't look like an issue internally can suddenly turn into a big deal outside your company, it's important to stay aware of what's being said about your business on a regular basis.
Monitoring discussions about your business, especially online, can help you create something of an early warning system — but it's important to make sure you can move quickly on anything you discover.
Build Relationships Ahead of Time
The more connections you have with the media, the more flexibility you can expect. While you can't ask a reporter not to run a story, having an already-established working relationship with a journalist can let you ask for a few minutes to make sure everything is clear before you start answering questions.
One of the simplest approaches to building a working relationship with members of the media is to be a source for their current projects. That can mean pitching article ideas, connecting them to interview subjects, and otherwise being useful. Of course, such an approach is also useful for building awareness of your company and promoting yourself. Cast as wide a net as you can. Time can be a key limitation, but the better your connections to the local media, the more options you have in a time of crisis.
Train for Media Response
In most small businesses, the main point of contact for reporters is the owner. If you're the person that everyone wants to talk to, you need to be prepared. You won't be able to pass the matter along to a PR consultant brought in just for this particular situation. Since that's the case, it's important to be able to communicate well with the media.
Typically, media training can cover a couple of different skill sets. One of the most important is simply being able to keep your cool when talking to a member of the media, whether it's a blogger or a television news anchor. It's also useful to learn how to formulate responses that will work well in an interview. You can get media training from many public relations or marketing firms, and it's a worthwhile investment in your plans for the future.
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