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Actions That Can Save Your Organization’s Reputation

Today’s 24-hour demand for real and fake news has changed the way you do business. Small mistakes can quickly escalate in reputation-damaging crises. Preventing or repairing them ultimately rests with board members, executives, and top management.

This article will explore how to anticipate what can lead to crises, errors to avoid when navigating a crisis, how to establish an effective crisis strategy, and best communications practices.

Common Reasons Crises Occur

You cannot anticipate every possible crisis, but you can analyze your business and the industry in which you operate to spot issues that are likely to arise. Here are common reasons crises occur:

Lack of communication or miscommunication. A breakdown in communication is the No. 1 reason things fall through the cracks and land companies in crisis. It’s up to you to make sure your vision and expectations are not just stated but are understood and implemented. Never take clarity for granted.

Financial mismanagement. Money tends to go missing if you have too few financial controls and too little oversight. While some people will go to great lengths with creative accounting, do not make it easier. Create extra hurdles, and you will deter many of them.

Feuding executives or board members. Any time smart and strong-willed people come together, the likelihood of tension increases – between co-owners and between board members and executives. Even those who were once aligned may drift apart.

Lax oversight or inattention to detail. Many people tend to push the limits, whether it is for a challenge or to see what they can get away with. It does not matter whether the person is pilfering company funds or making comments they think are friendly and innocuous but are offensive to others. Their actions can create serious risks for the company.

Abuse of power. Coercing others to get one’s way backfires more often than you would think. These things tend to bubble over and not stay secret for long. If it happens often enough, the victims may band together and rise up. This can damage the organization or an executive’s reputation. (Think Harvey Weinstein and the Weinstein Company or Roger Ailes and Fox News.)

Inadequate cyber or physical security. If you think your business is too small or your employees are like “family,” think again. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the rise of cyberattacks is growing, and businesses with 250 employees or fewer are the target of more than 70 percent of the time. Workplace violence is widespread. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), nearly 2 million cases of workplace violence occur each year – and that is just the ones that are reported.

Waiting for someone else to speak up. If something is amiss, speak up. You cannot simply wait and hope someone else will poke his or her head out of the foxhole to fix it. Chances are others are hoping you’ll be the one to speak up.

Lawsuits, investigations, and audits. When any of these words hit the rumor mill or surface in the media, everyone suspects the worst. Even if your business is innocent, people will suspect you are guilty if you do not tell your side of the story.

What Not To Do

If you do find yourself in a crisis, avoid these things, so you do not make a bad situation worse.

Ignoring a problem. Sticking your head in the sand does not make monsters go away. Seldom do problems resolve themselves or blow over. If you do not take control early on, you will create a beast that is hard to handle.

Failing to plan for crises. Once the stuff hits the fan, you do not have time to scramble around trying to gather information and rally the troops. Making decisions under duress is a petri dish for mistakes. There is an old saying often attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Failing to plan, is planning to fail.”

Lying or misleading. People lie. It is a sad fact of life. Some lie more maliciously than others. A lie rarely occurs in a void; if there is one, there will surely be others. Half-truths are a problem, too. If you are caught fibbing or flat-out lying, your credibility will tank. Once you have lost credibility, it is difficult to repair your reputation.

Abdicating responsibility. If you know something is wrong but try not to get involved, you are begging for more trouble. If what another person is doing will negatively affect the business, it’s your problem now. As an executive or board member, you no longer have the luxury of saying, “It’s not my job.”

Making assumptions. You must know the facts and make decisions accordingly. Do not assume something is being taken care of. If you catch yourself saying, “I assume that’s what they meant,” go back for clarification.

Intimidating others to keep silent. Throwing your weight around to try to keep a secret usually backfires. The truth always finds a way into the light. Once the truth peeks its head out, you will not be just battling the original sin but also the coverup.

Creating a paper trail (unless it is to CYA). The damning things that people commit to writing in emails, texts, or documents is really quite amazing. The next time you start to type, take a moment and ask yourself, “Can this come back to bite me or the business?” Unsure? Err on the side of caution and stop typing.

Straying from talking points. Know what you want to say and stick to it. Do not worry if you encounter a question that is not aligned with your key message or talking points. Simply answer the question you want. Your goal is to keep control of the message.

Analysis Behind Fixing A Crisis

Can this be fixed? What are you hoping to achieve? Of course, you want the problem fixed quickly and thoroughly. But first, you must know what is actually achievable and what is not. Then you can find the most plausible path to get there. Whether you get your wish depends on how you answer these questions:

How deeply did you step in it? Are you innocent or guilty? Are you a repeat offender? Be honest. Either way, you have options. There is always something you can do or say to make a situation better. But beware of the voice in your head whispering wistfully about how you would prefer the story to be told in an ideal world. That is a fairy tale. Be realistic in what you hope for, and you will not be disappointed.

Is it already public? How much time has passed? Timeliness matters. If the story broke a week ago, it is probably too late to respond and effectively shift perception. On the other hand, if the story just broke and is still fresh, you must act quickly — even if the misdeeds are decades old. In the public’s perception, silence equates to guilt.

What have (or haven’t) you done so far? If you have already taken action or made statements before developing a strategy, you run the risk of being forced to backpedal.

Do you have all the information? Never step in front of a camera or microphone armed with misinformation. You also cannot make informed business decisions without the facts. Often it is impossible to have all the information you need immediately. But don’t throw in the towel. If you do not have it now, how do you get it?

How and when should you speak to employees, donors, customers, clients, or other stakeholders? The words you use are as important as timing. The right message is critical.

How and when should you speak to the media? You want to define the tone of the story. That does not mean you should preemptively go public with something that may never come to light. But if a story is going to be published (or is highly likely to), you want your version to be the one that is told. If the other side gets out first, you will struggle to redefine the tone on more favorable terms.

Creating And Implementing A Plan

Proactive versus reactive. Being proactive is always best. Consider how much you can do if you know an unhappy employee is going to file a lawsuit, embezzlement will be unearthed, an SEC investigation is pending, or a merger or acquisition is in the works.

How do you balance being proactive with bogging yourself down with yet another laborious task? When most people think of crisis plans, they envision bloated three-ring binders that are essentially expensive paperweights. What is the value of a brief plan? You are more likely to read and understand a few pages, so you will learn the basics.

Communicating with stakeholders. No matter who your audience is, you must be reassuring.  You also must be consistent. Do not tell different stories to different audiences. Different stakeholders have different interests. The media wants facts (and fast), the public wants to hear gossip, and investors want to know their money is safe. While what is emphasized is different for each group, the underlying message must be the same.

Make sure your company has a media relations policy. You cannot control what your employees say, but there should be a company policy about how to handle incoming media inquiries. Do not simply put it in a handbook no one will read. Make it part of employee training.

Using and responding to social media. Every situation varies, but smaller issues often can be resolved by getting to the source — the upset party, the influencer, or the most vocal member. Persuade them and let them disseminate your message for you. You do not want to get down into the weeds and respond directly and individually to each person on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

By contrast, if you are facing a flood of negative comments or inquiries (common with recalls, data breaches, or other threats to safety), you should designate a person or team dedicated solely to handling your social media. As with all communications, your message must be carefully scripted, and your team must not stray from it.

Working with law enforcement, investigators, and the court system. During a crisis, you want to work closely and cooperate fully with any agency. Ideally, you will have already forged relationships with local law enforcement and other government officials. Do not wait until after you need them.

Rebuilding After A Crisis

Instituting controls to prevent future crises. After you’ve breathed a sigh of relief, get back to work. Have your team make notes of what worked and what did not.

Were response times too long? Were people speaking off-script, and therefore was there no unified message? Was there confusion regarding responsibilities? Do board members, executives, or other employees need a refresher on company policies? Doing this exercise shortly after the crisis is important because time tends to blur memories of events. It also helps avoid missteps next time.

Internal and external communications. Be consistent in your messaging and be careful what you put into writing. For example, you cannot tell people outside of the organization everything is fine, and you have everything under control while telling your employees it is chaos.

Re-focusing on “good” PR. During a crisis, you want to shift the focus away from the issue and toward a bright, happier future. After the crisis, you will really start to focus on re-establishing your organization’s reputation.

Gillott Eden optEden Gillott, president of Gillott Communications and a former business professor, resolves issues both in and outside the media’s glare — from celebrity scandals and corporate fraud to criminal and civil litigation. Educated at Harvard and NYU, she co-authored “A Lawyer’s Guide to Crisis PR (Second Edition)” and “A Board Member’s Guide to Crisis PR.”

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