Prepare to be blindsided

Tips for crisis management

While crises can't be predicted, planning and preparation can make the difference between coming out on top or going under.

A company's reputation is king, especially in the government market, where buying decisions hinge on past performance and trust. However, scrutiny reaches an extreme level when a crisis strikes, thrusting companies into the court of public opinion.

Cancelled contracts, disgruntled employees, backdated options, security breaches, C-level employees facing lawsuits, classified information leaks, natural disasters, employee deaths ? all companies in the government space can encounter any of these crises and more.

A crisis can be as simple as a lost laptop PC with classified information or as high-profile as employees arrested for illegal activities. Consider the multitude of negative headlines resulting from DynCorp employees' involvement with illicit drug trafficking and the more recent Blackwater scandal.

Crises can happen to any company, even the most ethical and best of breed, at any time. What's more, a crisis doesn't stop with the loss of a contract; it can cause irrevocable damage to a company's reputation, brand, revenue and valuation.

The only certainty a company faces when dealing with a crisis is that it will occur when least expected - and being caught off guard can be the kiss of death.

Control the chaos

The public, including media and key stakeholders, demands an immediate response during a crisis. The expectation of instant action requires reactive decision-making. But there are many proactive tactics that companies can employ before a crisis erupts.

By planning in advance, companies can develop an effective, comprehensive crisis management plan that enables an immediate, transparent exchange of information when a crisis does occur. Developing proactive response strategies can mean the difference between successfully maintaining control over a crisis and simply surviving it.

While the case for effective crisis communications is evident, the action plan may not be as straightforward. What should a company plan for? How should it plan? Who should do the planning?

The overarching goal of a crisis management plan is to provide a blueprint for the company that will establish and maintain control over the messages and information given to the public during a crisis. A comprehensive crisis management plan will take into account all possible situations, all potential publicity and all influencing factors.

In the event of an emergency or controversy, a crisis communication plan specifies policies and procedures for the coordination of communications in the organization and between it and any relevant parties. They include customers, prospects, shareholders, regulatory bodies, employees and the media.

When developing a crisis management plan, there are some important aspects to consider:
  • Designate a crisis management team. Successful crisis management begins with an executive team that understands the need for preparation, planning, transparency, information sharing and accountability. Prior to a crisis, identify individuals who are relevant to each crisis scenario.
  • Appoint a spokesperson. Companies should designate one C-level executive who is media trained to serve as the public face of the company throughout a crisis. A single spokesperson ensures that key messages are conveyed consistently across all media and to all external audiences.
  • Prepare for potential crisis scenarios. While it is impossible to see the future, it is possible to predict potential crises that a company might face based on past incidents, competitors' experiences and the regulatory climate of the industry (i.e., failure to perform on a contract is a crisis for government contractors).
  • Have internal ground rules in place. Take the time to develop, discuss and educate employees and management on specific rules they must follow when facing a crisis. For instance, only those who have been delegated to speak to customers, media and the public at large should do so.
  • Take an integrated approach. Don't limit a crisis management plan to traditional techniques: take advantage of the wide range of Web 2.0 technologies available that enable instantaneous communications. Prepare for a crisis by creating a dark site (a Web site that remains inactive until needed), activating RSS feeds, monitoring/controlling blogs and organizing e-mail blasts.
  • Develop targeted messaging. Consider the audiences that need to be addressed in a crisis situation, as well as the questions they will want answered. Keep in mind that these audiences extend beyond reporters and should include partners, stockholders, employees, subcontractors, etc.
  • Create contact lists. Develop and maintain contact lists of key media, partners, stakeholders and employees so they are readily available when a crisis hits. This enables immediate, accurate communications, ensuring that VIPs are receiving information directly from the company in a timely manner.
  • Be truthful. While this seems an obvious point, many companies instead attempt to stretch or cover the truth when dealing with a crisis in hopes of saving their reputations. However, the only way for a company to establish itself as trustworthy and ethical is to actually be trustworthy and ethical. No crisis management tactic can fully remove the stigma of dishonesty.

Control is the key to managing any situation. As all successful managers know, control is a direct result of comprehensive planning and preparation. Crisis planning and management is no different. It is more than a binder on a credenza or flying in a troubleshooter when the phone rings.

When a company's reputation and valuation is on the line, everything is at stake. Taking strategic action to prepare a comprehensive and effective crisis management plan ensures that a company will be prepared to weather the storm, saving its brand equity, reputation and future.

Larry Rosenfeld is the founder and chief executive officer of Sage Communications, in Vienna, Va. He can be reached at larryr@aboutsage.com.

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