When the going gets tough, the tough hire public relations people. And sound risk management means you don’t wait for the disaster to strike, you have a team on stand-by that can assist your company to protect its image. In today’s environment of instant communication, one organizational misstep can turn the blogosphere, and hence the mainstream media, against you in moments. How should your company respond?
The best risk management technique is one of prevention, of course. As your management and board approach decision making, it is always prudent to ask this million-dollar question: “How will this look on the five o’clock news?” If your answer is “Bad,” then any decision that flies in the face of that thinking is a disaster waiting to happen.
In their book Stop the Presses: The Crisis and Litigation PR Desk Reference, Richard Levick and Larry Smith offer tops tips for handling a public relations crisis. In this book, the authors recommend making decisions “as if there were a 60 Minutes camera in your boardroom.” Protecting your company’s brand must be at the top of your strategic agenda, because you have spent years building it. Building goodwill by consistently doing the right thing must be a top organizational priority.
But it is also the little acts that count, and front-line employees must be trained to extend goodwill. I was in a Starbucks a few months ago with a friend. One of their vendors needed to sit by an electrical outlet and the manager politely asked if we would mind switching tables. We were happy to, but the manager then trotted back with two gift certificates for $10 each and also offered us two complimentary drinks for that visit. How great is that? I am a big Starbucks fan.
At least I was until a visit to another Starbucks a few months ago. I ordered a piece of cinnamon coffee cake and as I took my first bite, I bit into a piece of stick. No, Virginia, it wasn’t a cinnamon stick, it was a stick stick. Grateful I didn’t break a tooth, I took it back to the counter, where they offered to replace it with another piece. I wasn’t looking for anything but a refund, but I know this—it goes a long way to say “I’m sorry” then to back it up with a small token of that regret.
The authors will agree, because they recommend you take all communications seriously, because “a misstep with the editor of a 200-subscriber newsletter can affect coverage in The New York Times.”
I recall as a fledgling journalist I nervously called an insurance big wig, who shall remain nameless. Nervous, I couldn’t quite get my question out. There was an awkward silence and finally he barked, “Look, I’m busy; I don’t have time for this” and hung up on me. I was humiliated, which then turned to anger. Although it has been almost two decades, guess what? I’m not a fledgling anymore and I still remember his name. To avoid media blowups, treat people like you want to be treated, even if you are dealing with the measliest member of the media.
A quality public relations operation must be in place long before any crisis occurs. If you think your organization is too small to plan for disaster, you may be very wrong. If nothing else, read Stop the Presses, then decide.