A public crisis for a business is usually unexpected. A range of factors can trigger a crisis, including but not limited to:
- mechanical (a piece of equipment fails, for example, injuring employees)
- financial (such as a company announcing redundancies prompting a social media backlash)
- behavioural (employee misconduct, maybe a viral video from the office Christmas party)
- technological (a data breach or outage)
- environmental (an accidental polluting of a waterway).
Your business’s reputation exists whether you manage it or not. This article explains why your SME should develop a crisis communications strategy, and what should be in your crisis communications plan.
Practical crisis communication strategy for SMEs
A crisis communication strategy is a business’s planned management approach to a crisis that negatively affects its reputation, business, and customers. It sets out stakeholder communication tactics to reduce brand damage. CEOs of SMEs need to be confident in their ability to effectively manage a crisis and help control the narrative around their brand.
Volkswagen: poor tactics
The Volkswagen emissions scandal is a glaring example of poor crisis management. In September 2015, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered that many VW cars sold in America had software installed in their diesel engines that could temporarily improve the environmental performance results to pass the emissions test. It was later found that more than 11 million cars worldwide were fitted with this software.
Volkswagen’s crisis communication tactics were inconsistent. Senior officials were slow to respond. They first claimed they were unaware of the software, only to admit a few days later that they did know. The dishonest response further amplified the crisis, creating greater consumer mistrust of the company.
In September 2018 a Brisbane man ate a strawberry with half a needle in it. This was the beginning of a large-scale crisis for the Australian strawberry industry. Needles were found in strawberries in every state of Australia as well as in New Zealand. The purposeful contamination meant supermarkets stopped stocking strawberries. Exports were halted and millions of strawberries discarded across the country.
The strawberry industry was quick to rally. They apologised. They offered a consistent message in support of farmers, emphasizing the devastating effect on farmers’ livelihoods. Photographs of dumped strawberries helped rally community support. A clever PR campaign “#smashastrawb” encouraged consumers to buy the fruit but cut it up to be safe.
The industry didn’t try to hide the crisis; they were transparent and worked with police to find the culprit. They engaged professional assistance to navigate the media. Taken together, these tactics lessened the blow to their industry and to the livelihoods of strawberry farmers.
For Melbourne-based crisis communications expert Tony Jacques, managing communications in a crisis is straightforward.
“The guidelines for crisis communication are very simple: state the facts as presently known (don’t speculate), apologise, empathise, and describe what actions you are taking,” he wrote for Mumbrella after a 2018 incident in which a crane fell from a Box Hill building site, causing wet concrete to fall into a pit, killing one worker and injuring two others. The crane company took more than 24 hours to issue a statement to the media.
Prepare a plan
By writing a crisis communication plan in advance, your business will be prepared to handle a crisis and limit reputational damage. Your plan should:
- identify the key stakeholders of your business (internal and external)
- determine your crisis communications team and appoint a relevant spokesperson
- analyse crisis scenarios that your business could face
- list potential questions your business will face in a crisis and how your business would answer them
- examine the risks of your plan and how to mitigate them
- create a specific strategy for how you will use social media during the crisis
- identify professionals such as legal and public relations experts who could help your business in the event of a crisis.
Any sustainable business plans for the unexpected. Developing a practical plan for the rapid and transparent response to a crisis will always be the best crisis management strategy.
Any decision that affects your business has legal implications. Contact us today to help secure your business for whatever tomorrow brings.