Mark Zuckerberg, you have 487 new notifications. Not from friends, but from inquiring minds in the media. If you think his life is bad as this Cambridge Analytica scandal remains in the headlines, just imagine what life could be like inside your firm should a crisis unfold. No matter the size of your company, every business faces a unique set of “situations” that could catapult the brand into the unfortunate territory of a crisis. It could be a massive data breach, a public lawsuit, a national product recall, or even a negative customer Twitter rant gone viral – the list goes on and on. Strategic preparation for handling these crisis scenarios is key, but strategic communication can be just as critical.
Using C-suite executives as spokespeople is a crucial solution that businesses should consider when mediating a crisis. Most obviously, this level of accountability is the shortest path to remedy a reputation issue. In the event of a crisis, here are steps that a C-suite spokesperson should take:
Transparency and timeliness.
Before a crisis hits, the C-suite should have an understanding of a few “what ifs” that could happen; not only the repercussions, but how the public should be addressed. It’s smart to “role play” these situations so the C-suite is already prepped at the moment a crisis hits. In our ever-connected, social media driven world, customers and clients demand timely responses to a crisis, and they expect them straight from the top. Waiting to respond will only allow others to tell your story for you. Take control of the situation, get out there first with your course correction to the crisis, and offer the public what they want to hear – what happened, and how you plan to fix it.
Take a look at Anthem, a major health insurer that, in 2015, experienced the largest data breach at the time (an estimated 80 million people could have been affected). What did they do right? Anthem came out publicly and acknowledged the breach only days after the issue was detected. Then, not only did President and CEO Joseph Swedish pen a thorough open letter on the company’s website, but the Anthem team launched a microsite where customers could access details about the breach and what resources they could use. Compare that to the Target breach in late 2013. News of that data breach broke from an outside source, and while the company made a public statement within five days, it then took weeks before they formally notified customers.
Arm employees with detailed facts.
In times of a crisis, filling your employees in is important for two reasons. First, they wholly deserve to know what is occurring inside the business. Second, the press will do whatever they can to find out the story. What if a local news reporter calls an entry level employee digging around, and the C-suite decided to “wait” and conceal important details of a crisis from their entire team? Inevitably, that employee will probably give wrong information, which will only amplify the problem when false or inaccurate information is printed.
Arm your employees with as much information as possible, and coach them on what to say or not say. Provide a script they can use that either 1) Has them decline to comment, but offers to pass reporter information to an appropriate person at the company who can comment, or 2) Offers details, but is direct, succinct, and the same information that any other employee would discuss. The direct acknowledgement of an issue to employees from the C-suite keeps the company on the same page, and allows employees to have the facts in case they are cornered by unexpected calls on the issue.
Make it right.
If you come across a crisis situation that negatively impacts your clients, it’s time to offer a sincere apology. This is the most opportune time to be truly sympathetic to the situation. Own up to what occurred and let the public know next steps – it’s the best way to build confidence back with the clients or customers. Remember the United Airlines crisis in April 2017, when a customer was violently forced off of a flight? The CEO waited days before offering a truly compassionate apology. At that point, the public had time to paint their own picture of the scenario, and without guidance from the CEO on what the company would do to fix the issue, it was too little, too late to remedy the damage that had been done to the brand.
When it comes to crisis communications, training C-suite to be the face of the issue can not only help to mediate a scenario, but also allow the brand to bounce back from damage done.