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Eight steps for crisis communications planning

Protect your firm from a Wolters Kluwer moment

John Vita | October 2019 Footnote

Editor's note: Updated October 1, 2019

The Oracle from Omaha, Warren Buffet, said it very well: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

Just ask Arthur Andersen, recognized for decades as the leading global accounting firm. But, a few months after the onset of the Enron crisis, it was essentially out of business. Not because of a legal proceeding or a trial — that would come months later and clear them of charges — but because of mass client defections driven by reputational damage from negative press coverage.

More recently, Wolters Kluwer found themselves hacked. But what they did (or did not) do in terms of managing client and public perception led Accounting Today to say: “Early last week, a cyberattack took down that software and presented a case study in how not to communicate with customers over a hack.”

And, while a crisis communications plan can’t guarantee negative publicity won’t happen, it can help to manage the situation and minimize the reputational damage. Here are steps to consider should you ever encounter such circumstances. Though these tips are geared toward midsize and larger firms, there are important takeaways that can be used by even sole proprietors.

Establish trusted relationships with the press before you need them

Crisis management is 100% the story you tell in your defense. Although social media is an incredibly impactful communications tool, most of the initial opinion forming is still carried out through traditional news vehicles. These media outlets include established online networks (CNN, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Bloomberg, etc.), print outlets, TV and radio.

Your first step should be to identify journalists at the most powerful/influential media outlets that cover your company. Once identified, arrange quarterly visits by your CEO (ideally, or yourself) to develop relationships with those journalists.

These relationships can result in more positive stories but, more importantly, the level of trust you build will help when someone brings questionable accusations against your firm.

Prepare likely scenario responses

You may get a call from a journalist who has to file a story quickly and only gives you an hour to respond. If you’ve already worked up a reactive media statement on likely scenarios ahead of time, your response will be stronger. A prepared statement will also help avoid internal chaos trying to search for input at the last minute. Also good at this point is to work up any off-the-record or background information you would use and identify any third-party influencers who could support your situation.

These crisis situations might be the loss of a client, regulatory action, senior employee departures, etc. These reactive statements can also be edited later to fit the exact situation, but most of your work (including approvals) will be done in advance. Remember that the journalist doesn’t have to run your entire reactive statement, so keep it short and make the sentences long.

Lastly, remember that “no comment” is the worst thing you can do. Most journalists need 300–500 words to fill out a breaking story. If you don’t give them content, they will most likely fill that void with commentary from a less than friendly source. At the very least, give them a reactive media statement that mirrors the legal department’s defense strategy (but written in plain English, not like a lawyer).

Identify your crisis team and spokesperson(s)

Decide who will be part of the crisis team. Likely candidates will be the CEO, chief legal officer, HR lead and communications lead. Try to keep the group small.

Your spokesperson will most likely be your CEO. The journalists you have established relationships with will think it odd if that person is nowhere to be found at this time. Plus, employees and clients want to see strong leadership starting at the top.

Develop your crisis contact tree

This is a document that can be folded and put in a wallet or handbag, kept on a smart phone or in a secure spot on your intranet. It lists the following key contact information for each member of your crisis team:
  • Work, home and mobile phone numbers
  • Work and private email addresses
  • Home address
  • Spouse/partner contact
Also include your outside legal counsel and PR agency information. If you don’t have relationships with either, consider who you would contact during a crisis and make sure there are no competitor conflicts.

At this time, it would be good to set up email distribution groups and look into the possible need for a private collaboration site and/or intranet site dedicated to the crisis issue.

Develop early warning systems

You need to work with your legal department to alert you early on to situations that could mushroom into larger reputational problems and hit the press. Lawyers are usually very busy and don’t typically think first about reputational damage. Stop by their office once a month and remind them, asking, “Are there any issues bubbling up that could damage our reputation at a later date?”

You should also monitor your reputation online. Use Google’s free news monitoring “alerts” service to track online discussions about your firm. You should also look into a social media monitoring service to check daily for any negative conversations about your firm.

Media training

While your CEO should have media training for working with the press, your senior executives also need specialized training for crisis situations. In addition, training reference materials should be available online for access whenever needed later.

Communicate your crisis policy internally

Make sure all employees and partners are aware of your crisis policy. Use your available internal communication channels to provide updates to all employees and consider running a specific training session. This can also be included in your new hire orientation.

Employees should know to never comment to the press on issues, but instead to route requests to designated spokespeople. Likewise, they should also refrain from responding to situations on social media.

Clients, regulators and influencers

The same talking points you have developed should be in hands of all partners for their usage with clients and staff. The level of severity will dictate if the messaging is proactive or reactive. In either case, make sure the messaging is consistent firm wide.

Remember, speed is of the essence as you want your clients to hear about the issue from you than in the press or through social media. This communication should be in person or over the phone, between the partner and client.

Preparation goes a long way

When it comes to protecting a reputation that you have spent years to build, the saying that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” has never been truer. The preparation involved isn’t all that difficult or labor intensive, and when that crisis hits, you will be glad you did it.

John Vita is a former news producer for WBBM-TV News (CBS News Chicago) and the former global director of public relations for Grant Thornton International. He is now managing partner of John Steven Vita Communications.