Crisis management has changed significantly. If you are a corporate leader of a multinational company today, and aim to protect your reputation for the long term, you need to ask yourself two questions: are we ready and are we nimble? Are we properly organized and can we respond in time when faced with a crisis?
If you still rely on manuals that are more than six months old and do not have social media at its core, both questions are answered.
Millions of citizen journalists roam society every day, with phone cameras and Internet access at the ready. They capture and instantly transmit around the world what they witness-or think they witness. They pass along unverified "news flashes" from acquaintances. Their tweets and posts become stories, alongside news from more established sources. These reports, unregulated and uncorroborated as they are, can create irreversible damage when inaccurate and left unaddressed.
You need to give all stakeholders the proper attention, and in the right order. Media cannot be ignored, and rapid engagement with the story - or what we call the ‘blame game' - remains imperative. But you need to work directly with everyone who has an interest and has the capability to amplify your message.
Don't underestimate the crisis (eg. BP's Deepwater Horizon); it is easier to scale down a response strategy then getting it going quickly.
Steps to take
Speed of response: Accuracy is paramount but you have to respond at the speed of your audience. The University of East London monitored a crisis (the 2011 aircrash at Cork, Ireland) and saw tweet traffic peak in the first hour when there was no authoritative source giving the public correct information - as soon as the correct information began to circulate and allay concerns/fears, tweet traffic dropped rapidly.
Monitor, listen, analyse and learn: Hire a crisis expert. Management is not trained in crisis response and if they have been trained, they do not regularly flex that muscle.
Address the core issue: Determine if it is your issue, an industry or societal issue. Don't be distracted by peripheral issues or commentary and if an apology is needed, make one. Often this takes the heat out of the issue, as Apple finally learnt with its recent experience in China. Nor does an apology have to imply guilt.
Get visual and get online: Use the internet to put a human face to your company and go direct to the public by putting the CEO or the appropriate spokesperson on video. Social media, while a source of reputational crisis, can also be a powerful and rapid tool in resolving a crisis.
Accept that there will be a negative impact for the company and that reputation recovery takes time: How much time the recovery takes depends on the wisdom contained in the organisation's vision for resolving the crisis. The market makes the decisions about whether a company is a winner or loser in the first 7-10 days after a crisis event.
Find allies and friends to advocate your story: In the same way a news article is perceived as far more credible than an advertisement, an independent party crediting your company with good policies and practices is far more powerful than you just talking up your own book.
The writer is Brian West, Global Chair of the FleishmanHillard Crisis practice.