Business Forum: Be ready to respond

  • Article by: JON AUSTIN
  • Updated: December 29, 2013 - 1:07 PM

From Target to Carnival Cruise Lines to JPMorgan Chase, managing a corporate crisis has to begin long before the reporters start calling.

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U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez talked outside of a Target store in Jersey City, N.J., on Thursday. Menendez, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, said he had asked the Federal Trade Commission to ensure that consumers are better protected after the Target data theft.

Photo: Julio Cortez , Associated Press

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The hack on Target that put 40 million credit cards at risk is only the latest incident in which a large organization finds itself at the center of a controversy. Just in 2013, we’ve seen the Catholic Church, the Obama administration and businesses ranging from Carnival Cruise Lines to Lululemon to JPMorgan and hundreds more grappling with difficult issues in the glare of scrutiny and criticism from the media and key constituencies.

As someone who makes his living counseling organizations in stressful situations, I’m often asked to assess how a company is handling a tricky issue and what else it might be doing to resolve an issue faster or more favorably. While it’s tempting to respond to such questions with sound-bite prescriptions the reality is that you have to “be in the room” to know why an organization takes a certain public posture.

Target, for example, was heavily criticized last week for only issuing a statement in response to a barrage of media inquiries and requests for comments and interviews. Was that the right move for a company in this situation? Absent all the facts that the decisionmakers at Target are wrestling with, the best answer is “Maybe.”

But, while second-guessing a particular response can be challenging, there are a number of principles and predispositions that decisionmakers should always bring to bear in deciding how best to respond.

Be predisposed to communicate. At every stage of an evolving crisis, look for ways to do more in terms of getting information out, reaching key audiences and providing a clear and compelling narrative.

Too many organizations under stress start from the position that the less said the better. Sometimes its cultural (“we don’t talk to the media on a day-to-day basis so why do it now”), sometimes it’s a legal consideration (“comments in the media only add to the record we’ll have to defend later on’’) and sometimes it’s based on the mistaken hope that if they don’t talk about it, the problem will go away or go unnoticed. Regardless of the reason, organizations with this mind-set tend to focus on the question of “What’s the least we can get away with saying?”

Organizations need to “flip the script” on this question to determine “What’s the most we can say?” Start from the position that, in a perfect world, we’d share everything and work backward from there. For once, all of your constituencies — customers, employees, shareholders and others — are paying attention and want to know what this situation means to them; what are you going to say?

Be proactive. Use the time before a crisis explodes into public view to be ready to communicate your organization’s narrative about what happened, why and what you’re going to do in response. At a minimum such preparation will help you get your message into the first news reports and will maximize the chance that your key constituents will hear about the issue first from you.

Most crises don’t sneak up without warning. Lawsuits rarely arrive without a call from a lawyer, investigations often start with a letter and a request, activists almost always want a meeting before picketing the annual meeting. Plan for such events, develop communications materials, marshal resources and make sure your means of communication — mailing lists, websites, media lists — are ready to go.

And, for those crises that really do happen suddenly, use the time when you’re not in crisis to make contingency plans for the scenarios you’re most likely to encounter. An airline, for example, should be prepared to respond instantly to events such as a plane crash, a hijacking or an act of terrorism. Similarly, a retailer should be in a state of readiness for events such as product recalls, acts of violence in their stores and, of course, a data breach involving its customers’ credit card data.

Be quick. The speed of information today is instantaneous, the number of news outlets is limitless and organizations caught in the spotlight need to be able to keep up. That means having spokesmen/spokeswomen available 24/7; continuous monitoring of both mainstream and social media, and giving communicators the authority to act in a timely, appropriate manner without having to send every move “upstairs” for review, which as often as not actually degrades the effectiveness of the ­proposed action.

Be consistent. Many organizations operate day-to-day on consensus or by distributing authority, but crises are usually best managed from a centralized function — think “war room” — and by a team with pre-assigned roles including someone who’s in charge of the organization’s overall response so every aspect of the company’s response can be coordinated and consistent.

Crisis response doesn’t have to be — and often shouldn’t be — led by the CEO or another member of senior management, but you need someone with experience in such matters, a thorough knowledge of the company and the trust of the senior leadership.

Every crisis is different, every issue has nuances and details that are important, but there are ways to plan for such events, to manage them effectively when they happen and to emerge on the other side with reputations and relationships intact. To do so, however, organizations must be prepared to step outside their comfort zones by looking for ways to communicate, by looking for ways to act instead of react, to be fast and to be consistent.

About the author: Jon Austin is a Twin  Cities-based public relations and media consultant. For nearly 10 years Austin served as the principal spokesman for Northwest Airlines. His email is jon@jaustingroup.com.

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