Top Philadelphia crisis communications firm gives tips to preserving organizational reputation

June 5, 2014

Outside of its people, an enterprise’s most valuable asset is frequently its reputation. Organizations go to great lengths to build a brand that will effectively communicate their value to clients, employees, prospects, investors, and an organization’s other, key constituents. Why, then, do these very same organizations fail to comprehend, plan, or execute effective practices that will protect their reputation in the event that something unforeseen occurs?

In today’s digital economy, the threats are more complex and the odds are growing that your reputation could suffer potentially catastrophic damage that will undermine your hard-earned goodwill with your valuable constituents. Even good businesses are susceptible to the same risks we have seen take down industry stalwarts. Consequently, every organization should have a plan  to identify, minimize, and potentially respond to threats that could cause irreparable damage to your reputation.

Here are the six steps we recommend:

1. Identify and prioritize risk. A comprehensive crisis communications plan begins with a fundamental understanding of internal and external threats, and a ranking of risks in terms of their potential damage. Is the threat regulatory? External? A natural disaster? Workplace safety? Digital breaches?
Corollary: The most effective way to plan is to first establish exactly where the greatest risks reside, and which ones deserve the most serious consideration.

2. Understand the value of transparency and the impediments inherent in it. Many companies believe in transparency, but because of regulatory or legal pressure, can never live up to its spirit and intent. Take for instance the recent case study of a hospital-client. Under fire for medical malfeasance, the story was shaped by outsiders motivated to mischaracterize the hospital’s actions. Handcuffed by HIPPA, the hospital struggled to explain itself. Yet, by proactively contacting the media, sitting down with them and explaining their situation, the hospital garnered tremendous respect, and a more judicious treatment once the story broke.
Corollary: By fully understanding the opportunities and constraints of transparency, organizations can more effectively plan for real-world scenarios and respond in ways that preserve reputation even under fire.

3. Appreciate the intricacies of micro-audiences. There was a time when organizations could talk to broad audiences through a single channel. But today, audiences have splintered, requiring each and every one of them to be addressed personally, and often through their own unique channel. A comprehensive communications strategy takes into account all audiences and how messages that assuage one might enrage another. A CEO who communicates the need to “gain efficiency” to investors might precipitate a mutiny by employees who interpret his comments as, “cutting my job!”
Corollary: Smart planning demands a careful identification of each audience’s point of concern and a messaging platform that plays to each, without needlessly alarming another. (Or, creating a messaging platform in advance provides sufficient opportunity to seek input and objectively evaluate how they will play with all of an organization’s various micro-audiences).

4. Train under real-world, live-fire conditions. Crisis communications is far from the old Xerox sales training program. Rather, the best training uses real-world examples and then tests your messages, and your messenger, under pressure. Training conducted in front of peers and managers, before video cameras and bright lights, smacks of the real-world pressure that crises present. That’s how you improve performance.
Corollary: Steel-temper your spokespeople by conducting live-fire training, complete with the tough questions the media and others will ultimately ask, and you will significantly improve “go-time” performance.

5. Build your reputational assets today for future withdrawals. Nothing smacks of insincerity more than an organization that tries to “trade” on relationships with the community or policy makers that never existed. An organization that took, but never gave back, and then asks for help at the first sign of trouble. Build a bank account of goodwill you can draw against during tough times.  It’s hard to see, but more valuable than you can imagine.
Corollary: By being gracious today in your relationship with the community, shareholders, investors, clients, customers, regulators, and others will pay dividends tomorrow when seeking support and understanding if something bad happens. Build your deposits today in case you need to cash them in tomorrow.

6. Judge not by the mistakes made but by the contrition, learning, and response made under pressure. Americans are a forgiving lot, but only to those who understand the power of an apology, when one is due. Learn from mistakes and respond in the positive. Even a bungled initial response can be forgiven if an organization works to change over time and ultimately demonstrates it humility and humanity.
Corollary: “God is not done with me yet,” said Jesse Jackson years ago, after creating a crisis of his own doing. God is not done with any of us, but we sure can minimize the number of times we must call on Him. Rather than pray for a miracle, plan to act accordingly in the event a crises occurs.

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