Due to the full-service nature of our work at Charleston|Orwig, we get the opportunity to view our clients’ brands from many perspectives. Each of those perspectives can reveal a chink in a brands’ armor; a vulnerability that can expose a brand to damage in the event of a crisis. This is why crisis communications management shouldn’t simply be a defensive maneuver. It’s more complicated than that. It is a measured, strategic and ongoing process that can win battles before they are fought, lessen the damage when a crisis hits, give a company the tools and expertise to navigate a crisis as it’s happening and protect a company’s brand and position it for growth. Key to success is building reputational capital in advance of crisis.
Most food system issues that evolve into crises come from the food safety, animal care or environmental categories. At Charleston|Orwig, we’ve found the combination of our pre-event keys (issues management, communications planning and preparation) and our active-event keys (following the CEO rule and leveraging the spotlight) to be a successful formula when preparing for, navigating and ultimately emerging from a crisis in a position to move forward.
1. Building a Firewall Between Your Company and Crisis
In the 21st century food system having an issues management strategy in place is critical to success. While food safety, animal care and the environment are areas where the most talked-about issues live, there are myriad public issues that have the potential to harm companies’ reputations and impact brands. While no “firewall” is absolute, issues management is a critical, ongoing and proactive tool that helps protect an organization from crisis and/or mitigate its damage. When executed correctly, issues management also can build a foundation for future activity that helps strengthen and protect an organization’s reputation and creates an environment in which a brand can flourish. While the discipline of issues management is separate and distinct from crisis, the two are cousins if not siblings—inexorably linked, given the power properly executed issues management has to prevent or mitigate the damage from a crisis.
2. Crisis Communications Planning AND Preparation
While planning and preparation may seem synonymous, they are not. Once a plan is written and agreed upon by all relevant stakeholders, the tendency is to squirrel it away safely in a folder on a secure server or put a neatly bound copy on a shelf for use when needed. That’s the planning part of the job. Preparing for a crisis is an equally critical step. A crisis communications plan isn’t just a static document. It is a guide that gives companies the tools needed to engage in ongoing preparation. Practice makes perfect and preparing for a crisis is no different. Mock exercises for managing recalls, undercover video releases or subjective news coverage give those tasked with managing a company’s communications the confidence and expertise to guide their organizations through a crisis and emerge with an even stronger brand and reputation. While there are many pieces to this preparation puzzle, media and message training is the fuel on which crisis communications runs. Developing messages along with the skill to communicate them in a timely and effective manner positions organizations for success at a time when every decision, every move is even more critical.
3. Remember the “CEO Rule”
Today, it is common for chief executives to be the face of their companies. What they can’t be is the face of a crisis, hence the “CEO rule.” The philosophy is simply this: A chief executive is too critical to a company to risk becoming synonymous with a crisis or negative issue by being the company’s crisis spokesperson. Our counsel nearly always is to choose an executive who is senior enough to have the needed credibility, but who has a healthy distance from the c-suite to protect senior leadership from unforeseen negative developments.
4. Leverage the Spotlight
It may be hard for some to call a crisis an opportunity, but we’re going to do just that. At no time are the eyes and ears of more critical audiences—including customers, suppliers, the public and the news media—more focused on an organization than during a crisis. It’s unwanted and negative attention to be sure, but attention that is undivided nonetheless. That undivided attention provides an opportunity to shape the discussion. To determine how a company is viewed by its most important audiences for the foreseeable future. Everyone is watching and listening. The company can, in the long run, benefit from the attention when smart, strategic activities are brought to life in a thoughtful manner.
While each of the keys mentioned above is critical to effective and successful crisis communications management, none is more important than a strong, ongoing and proactive issues management program, one that builds reputational capital before it is needed. Many define issues management as defensive. At Charleston|Orwig we do not. When practiced in a smart and strategic manner, issues management will develop loyal and credible allies, establish strong ties to local communities and put companies in a position to act immediately when crisis hits. Strong issues management is the most important component in every crisis communications preparedness workshop we conduct for clients. Wondering if your company is prepared for a crisis? Contact Mark Gale at email@example.com.