Your business has been widely successful. Founded by your grandfather during America’s post-WWII economic boom period, it has grown steadily from a small shop run out of a garage to a multi-million-dollar business with facilities across Michigan and scattered across the country — you even recently broke ground on a facility overseas. You employ hundreds of people and the community you call home depends on your business to support thousands more. Your last thought before going to bed was reminding yourself of the afternoon board meeting or new client who will be touring the facility in the morning. Tomorrow will be another good day.
The ringing phone jolts you awake at 4:00 a.m. and everything changes. This is the news every manufacturing leader fears, yet none can predict. There’s been an accident. Maybe it’s a company transportation vehicle careening off the side of a road. Perhaps it’s a chemical leak at a facility across the state. It could be an incident of product tampering. No matter what it is, your world stops and the future of your company is at stake. The next days, weeks and months will all unfold based on how you react.
Do you have a plan in place? Are you prepared for the unexpected?
What would you do if a crisis hit home and threatened everything you’ve built?
Most manufacturers are far less prepared to handle a crisis than they want to admit. According to Barbara Lezotte, president of Lezotte Miller Public Relations Inc., the number of businesses that have actually begun preparation of a crisis communications strategy is shockingly low.
“Our firm conducted a survey of Michigan businesses a few years ago and found that, while a third had already experienced negative publicity because of fraud, employee errors or harm to customers due to faulty products or services, only 15 percent had prepared to handle a crisis by developing a plan,” said Lezotte. “Just four percent of those said they update their plans regularly to keep them current.”
One of the most dangerous, and costly, assumptions a manufacturer can make is the belief that media crises are something that only happen to other businesses. When dealing with your company reputation, one mistake is all it takes to tear apart everything you have worked to build. Consider the following steps to maintain your brand’s integrity even in the face of overwhelming negative press.
It Can Happen to Anyone
If you’ve already experienced a public relations nightmare, then you should be on the frontlines to ensure your business never experiences another situation. For those that haven’t faced such a crisis, most have still heard the stories of businesses crippled by action they either could or could not control. Such stories make the six o’clock news and the front page of the newspaper.
"While the exact message will depend on the crisis, there are still ways to plan ahead," said Kate Hofman, marketing manager for Amigo Mobility International, Inc. "It's important to chart how information will be distributed, especially to employees. Some companies may be able to hold one large meeting, while others may notify managers and ask them to communicate messages to their teams."
Keep in mind, as someone so closely connected to your business, it may be impossible for you to take a wide-angle look at it and judge your preparedness without bias. If that’s the case, consider hiring an outside expert to help identify and prepare for the worst-case scenarios. You can ask yourself how you would have fared if you had to deal with the Tylenol product tampering scare of the 1980s, incidents of natural disasters like fires and floods, or even what you would do if a competitor faced a crisis — would their negative press hurt the reputation of businesses within the same market?
“The pressure, stress and shock of a media crisis make clear thinking difficult and allow little time to present a credible response,” said Lezotte. “Reporters are relentless when they smell scandal or cover-ups so take the time now to develop your response and discuss a reliable strategy with advisors.”
Think of the planning process as an emergency response drill. It’s your best chance to get it right without the fear of an actual threat.
Be Ready with Your Message
One of the worst things an employer can do is wait until a crisis hits to begin developing a response to it. Consider identifying the potential crises most common for your type of business or the region where you are located and draft some language to act as a foundation for situations that could arise.
“In the event of an employee injury or death, the company should focus on concern for the affected families, co-workers, etc.,” said Lezotte. “Companies can also prepare general messaging about their scope of business, operations, products, services, and ensure their websites contain all the information a media outlet would need for positive background information.”
You can never know the exact messaging to use until a crisis hits, but when it does happen, you’ll find yourself pulled in a dozen different directions so having prepared starting points can be a huge help.
Use the Right Voice
A single, designated spokesperson, especially when it’s the CEO or top executive, sends the message that the company understands the seriousness of a situation and cares for the people affected.
“Think about White House protocol. When it’s a huge natural disaster or death of an important foreign leader, the President personally makes the visit,” said Lezotte. “When a lesser representative is sent, people feel slighted and can assume the incident is not a priority. Having a designated spokesperson also ensures consistency of message and the proper tone.”
The Media Doesn't Have to Be the Enemy
Michigan is known for some tough winters and driving the roads can be dangerous. When you start losing control of your vehicle it’s often better to steer into the skid. Handling the media during a crisis can often require the same strategy.
“There are still business executives and legal advisors who decide that media avoidance is the safest strategy,” said Chris Christoff, writer and media specialist for Lezotte Miller and a former Capitol Press Corps reporter with the Detroit Free Press and Bloomberg News for more than 30 years. “Such a passive approach allows the media to define the company’s reputation and fault in the incident, often erroneously. An implausible story can often take on considerable credence when the organization refuses to comment.”
During a crisis, how you deal with the media can be an essential factor in determining whether you get past it or get stuck dealing with it far longer than necessary. Take the time to get to know the reporters and editors in your area who cover your industry or the business community.
"Building rapport with reporters and media in advance is an important part of a communication strategy," said Hofmann. "Once those relationships are in place, the organization will have a list of familiar resources to call on when a quick, public response is needed."
According to Christoff, there are some simple strategies you can use to make media relations during a crisis go as smoothly as possible:
- Always be respectful in your answers and your treatment of reporters and editors
- If you don’t know an answer, be honest and don’t speculate or make up data
- Ask for more time to gather information, if necessary
- Do your best to meet their deadlines
- Avoid any “No comment” answers — reporters generally don’t honor requests to speak only on “background,” so everything you say is fair game even when the camera has stopped
Always Seek to Learn and Improve
The crisis has passed, your company is still standing and you’re looking toward a bright future. Be proud of getting through a bad situation, but never forget that there are lessons you can learn to ensure you’re better prepared in the future.
"Once a crisis has passed, it doesn't necessarily mean the conversation is over," said Hofmann. "The main goal is to move forward with business operations, but a lack of information leaves people guessing and lets them create their own narrative. By willingly providing information, the business retains some control over the conversation."
Make a regular effort to gather team leaders together or devote time at board of directors meetings to update your crisis plan with new information. You can always conduct research to determine if the company’s reputation has suffered and quickly address any issues that have reduced your brand’s credibility.
“Negative publicity can be deadly for some companies, especially when strong competition exists,” said Lezotte. “Competitors are only too willing to step in and take care of a wounded company’s customers or clients after a negative incident has weakened its credibility or marred its safety record. By keeping tabs on the coverage after a crisis, you can keep your reputation strong and keep building for the future.”
The Bottom Line
A true crisis will hit when you don’t expect it. That does not mean a responsible, forward-focused manufacturer should not or cannot be prepared for the unexpected.
Your company is more than just products, machines and a building. It’s about the people you employ, the consumers who benefit from what you create and the communities that rely on the taxes it pays toward better schools, better teachers, stronger roads, more police, fire and ambulance services, and the way it attracts other businesses to the region.
How you react when a crisis hits will affect everyone that relies on your business. Make sure you react the right way when your worst day arrives — have a plan in place.