Lots of small businesses would love the chance to shine in the national spotlight. Maybe it’s a media celebrity wearing your company’s dress on the red carpet or a sports star extolling the benefits of your health product during a widely publicized interview. For many businesses, that kind of publicity can boost sales, generate new interest in your brand, and launch you into super-charged growth mode. But what happens if the publicity your company receives isn’t favorable? What happens if you realize that you need a crisis communication plan when it’s already too late?
Those bright lights shining on you and your business will start to feel a lot like an interrogation room.
Crisis Communication: Knowing When You’ll Need It
You don’t need to look very far to find all sorts of “negative spotlight” stories involving brands, companies, and their CEOs. With the ubiquity of smartphones, it’s easier than ever to capture video, audio, and images of customer service gone wrong or unsavory practices.
Even if you’re a 100% “white hat” business owner who never scuffles with a customer, makes untoward remarks to a vendor, or gets caught creating environmental or public health hazards, it is still possible to get caught in the unfavorable limelight of a targeted advocacy campaign.
Here are just a few examples:
- A brand you stock in your store has recently been outed for sweatshop practices, and people are now emailing you and posting messages on your social account demanding you stop selling the brand immediately.
- Your restaurant has been receiving emails and letters asking that you stop purchasing meat and dairy products from certain factory farms that have a track record of animal abuses and employee safety disputes.
- Two senior members of your consulting firm recently made large donations to a political figure. Opponents have started an “awareness” campaign using this publically available information to drive existing and new clients away.
The list of nightmarish examples is potentially unlimited, and enough to give even a seasoned business professional a first-class anxiety attack. While it is not possible to control every action, reaction, thought and emotion that occurs in the public realm when it comes to your business, it is possible to PREPARE for both large and small crises and develop a communication plan that will help to guide you when the zombie apocalypse shows up at your door.
Crisis Communication: Determining Your Approach
The first order of business is to set aside time, on a regular basis, to talk with your business partners and senior staffers about these issues. Your decision-making team could be two people or a dozen, depending on the size of your company, but the focus is the same. You need to talk about what you will do (and not do) if and when a sizable number of people start demanding action because of something your business does is deemed unreasonable or hurtful.
Sometimes It’s Easy
Having these conversations can be more complex and challenging than you might think. Some members of your decision-making team may have a very “if you don’t like the song you can change the channel” kind of attitude. Others will follow a “the customer is king” model and gladly accede to any and every demand. Building consensus within your group is essential because all members need to know where to “draw the line” and have a firm understanding of how to respond when a problem develops. Some crises scenarios will be easy to agree upon:
The manager of a garden store stops carrying chemical pesticides harmful to the environment.
The partners of a web services firm decide to not accept any work from hate groups.
Sometimes It’s Not
However, for every black and white instance, there are others that are not so simple to define. These vagaries are why having conversations with your decision-making team and developing a response plan are important. Two examples:
If you arrive to work one day and find a picket line, what are you going to do?
If you learn that an employee is being harassed or unfairly targeted, how are you going to respond?
Careful Preparation Improves Your Chances of Weathering the Storm
When a crisis hits, emotions are running high, and you’re less likely to make a sound decision when it comes to a response. Unfortunately, that’s what all too many businesses, both large and small, end up doing. Learn from their mistakes and make the commitment to having regular discussions with your team about how to best handle these scenarios and get your crisis communication plan put into place.
Hopefully, such a plan is something you’ll never need to use – but, if the day comes and you find yourself in the middle of a political storm or media frenzy, you’ll stand a much better chance of making it through. And if you handle it well, you may find yourself in that rare category where “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”