“Almost every crisis contains within itself the seeds of success as well as the roots of failure.” -Norman R. Augustine
“Expect the unexpected” is both a cliché and deeply sound advice, especially in business. Trying to prepare for the unknown might seem like a paradoxical task, but anyone who has run any kind of company or entrepreneurial enterprise knows that a reputation challenge can develop out of nowhere and at almost any time. Threats to your reputation can do damage before you even know they exist.
The seeds of a predicament don’t even have to be real or based in truth to become something that can threaten a person’s or business’s reputation or viability. For example, a study has found that chatter about a company on Twitter can have a direct impact on the company’s stock market prospects. This also means that a fake tweet, an unfavorable review, or a criticism made in bad faith, can significantly influence what happens on Wall Street and beyond.
Another truism worth applying to crisis management is “preparation is the key to success.” Knowing what to do (and whom to call) when a reputation challenge hits can mean the difference between succumbing and survival. But let us be specific about what this all means. Effective online crisis management is less about instant reactions and overwhelming PR and more about understanding how the arc of a crisis will play out. The core question is therefore this: do you have a strategy in place to address this kind of problem? Here are three strategies for preparing yourself to handle an adversity.
#1 Know Your Strategy Before a Crisis Occurs
You should actually take your first step in addressing a problem long before it even appears on the horizon. How have you prepared? While the Covid-19 pandemic proved that sometimes, things arise that absolutely no one could have seen coming, every business can try to anticipate what difficulties they are likely to face in both the near and far future. Luckily, we live in a digital world, and as the pandemic revealed, the individuals and businesses that had already developed an online crisis management strategy were able to adapt to the tidal wave of changes more easily and effectively.
Businesses should plan their strategy for crisis management based on their business needs. Preparing for a reputation challenge can be as comprehensive a process for a company as predicting what is most likely to cause said challenges in the coming year (for example, negative reviews, supply chain problems, overwhelming demand for new products) or even further into the future (such as technological, and demographic changes, shifts in markets and competition). Or it can be as simple as knowing whom to call if things were to quickly go wrong for your business (more on that point soon).
Employees at every level of your business should share their ideas, fears, and inputs about what blocks your organization might face down the line, so that those at the executive level can benefit and learn from many different viewpoints. The point is to really think about the possibility of being in a crunch. This would require asking crucial questions such as — Which departments can react to a crisis digitally? Which areas would be the slowest to adapt to a crisis condition?
Prepping for something that might never come to pass might seem pointless but realizing the value in preparation is incredibly important. As the saying goes, “Plans are irrelevant; planning is valuable.” Taking the time to create a strategy for the unknown requires leaders to think about the future and, more vitally, reorients their minds toward action instead of panic. Remaining calm in chaotic times is much easier when one has already anticipated the chaos that might ensue.
#2 For Optimal Results, Seek an Expert’s Counsel
Small companies with limited personnel aren’t likely to have the necessary time or resources available to devote to an unfolding problem, especially when those resources could be better spent keeping the business afloat. So, what should a company do in such a situation? Bring in the experts.
An outside consulting firm with online crisis management experience can quickly and efficiently create and implement an effective crisis strategy. This can save a business from essentially fumbling around in the dark as it tries to figure out why it is being inundated with criticism and controversy on social media, or why its various departments have suddenly ceased communicating with each other. A fresh set of eyes can more readily and objectively identify problems and then lock them down and solve them.
In fact, the best time to establish ties with a reliable firm of consultants and outside experts is long before a problem ever occurs. An online crisis management expert can examine your company’s methods and practices, identifying likely vulnerabilities and other flawed practices that could lead to crisis points. Again, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
One of the most common recommendations from experts is to first define clearly what a reputation quandary would be for a particular company and then what decision makers’ exact roles will be when one occurs. Much of this depends on how potentially damaging the crisis in question would be. Does it need to be run through a centralized team or place, such as a “war room”? Would you need to pull in people from other departments to pitch in? If so, what exactly would those workers do?
These questions can become quite complicated. For example, who has control over your social media accounts? If your company is suddenly awash in public controversy, deserved or not, the college intern who knows how to use Tik Tok might not be the best person to handle your socials at that moment.
An adversity can breed chaos, which can blur the lines between people’s roles and confuse communications to the point where employees who shouldn’t be speaking on behalf of you and your business are suddenly the loudest voices. People can contradict one another, hampering your company’s ability to move past problems. Having clearly defined roles and responsibilities will enable your business to respond to any challenge more efficiently and effectively and prevent employees from stepping on each other’s toes.
#3 Be Flexible, Smart, and a Little Ruthless
Businesses have to deal with many different types of business challenges, with many of the most damaging ones originating almost entirely online. Companies have to maintain an almost endless vigil over what people are saying about them on social media, on blogs, in the press, on review sites—essentially everywhere. And in a crisis, things shift into overdrive. The situation can quickly become overwhelming, even for people and firms experienced in crisis management.
As a result, one must be both flexible and a little ruthless when responding to a crisis. Proactively monitoring how your communication is received allows you to swiftly recognize when an online crisis management strategy isn’t working, or a message isn’t getting through.
Being both smart and quick is difficult, but it can yield optimal results when there is a healthy balance. Constantly making changes can be seen as a form of panic by your customers or internal team. Conversely, one must not dawdle on decision-making. Some projects and expenses, even important ones, might need to be put on hold while prioritizing a crisis resolution. One way an outside consultant can be particularly useful is by providing research and data to determine how effective (or ineffective) your crisis management is.
As for being ruthless, difficult times sometimes call for difficult measures, though these do not include unethical actions, lies, or subterfuge. More often than not, these tactics end up backfiring horribly. In such cases, as the saying goes, “The cover-up is worse than the crime.”
If the situation is severe, a company will have to make hard choices about what will help it survive the situation and what might be dragging it down, at least as long as the crisis is ongoing.
The question might sound weird when you’re in the middle of what feels like a hurricane, but it needs to be asked: What can I learn from this crisis and how can I better prepare for a future one?
Simply put, a reputation challenge, especially a damaging one, might indicate the moment an important change or correction within a company is needed. An online crisis management team should keep an eye out for false statements and other defamatory content (and be ready to address it), but it also needs to be humble enough to admit when negative news stories and comments have an element of truth to them. Sometimes, the quickest and most effective way for a business to resolve a problem is by honestly and forthrightly saying, “We were wrong. We failed. And we’ll change for the better.”
Just remember that “prevention” can take different forms within the context of online crisis management. It can be having a reliable online crisis management firm on speed dial, for example, or observing what people are saying about you online. And prevention can also simply be running a company that treats its employees and clients/customers well.
Businesses will always have to contend with defamation and bad faith criticism, but too often, the crises businesses face are of their own making — the result of their mistakes or a lack of oversight. Avoiding such missteps is the best crisis strategy. Adopting the aforementioned steps will allow your company to respond swiftly and productively should a crisis arise and mitigate its adverse effects.