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Four Steps for Effective Crisis Communications

Ensuring that Your SMB is Prepared for the Worst … Even in the Best of Times

Written By: Megan Garnett


Like most industries, crises for small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) used to be black-and-white issues like product malfunctions, executive scandals or data breaches. While damaging, they were somewhat rare and relatively easy to handle. Today, it’s a much different story. With the frequent prevalence of hackers, disgruntled and careless employees, reporters and customers with axes to grind and countless outlets for false or negative statements, SMBs need to do everything in their power to prevent crises before they happen.  
While there are synergies to traditional crisis communications techniques and best practices for all types of organizations, SMBs are a whole different ballgame. Think about how the audiences for SMBs differ from those of larger, Fortune 5000 firms, which are the ones that have forged traditional crisis communications techniques. What will work for them will not necessarily work for SMBs.    
Having worked with SMBs for years, I know that crisis communications is usually low on their totem pole of priorities. Even though the troubles of most SMBs will not get covered by The New York Times or BusinessWeek, there is still a lot of damage that can be done without strategic, targeted crisis communications preparation.

I’ve identified four key steps that SMBs can take to ensure that everything is done to prevent a crisis from happening and, in the event that one does occur, that it is dealt with in an efficient, timely manner.  
Corporate Messaging
Developing clear, concise corporate messages is often one of the most difficult things to define and finalize for a company.  Yet without a message platform that is both easy to articulate and easy to understand, a company does not stand a chance during a crisis. 
It is more important than anything else for senior decision-makers to work on messaging. These message statements will serve as the foundation for all corporate internal and external communications before, during and after a crisis. It will also ensure that all collateral and spokespeople are consistent – presenting a unified front that is impenetrable to outside barbs, negative feedback and false and defamatory statements.      
Trained Spokespeople
Nothing can bring on or exacerbate a crisis more than an unprepared, unpolished company spokesperson. 
In order to be taken seriously as corporate spokespeople, executives need to be calm, cool, collected and articulate when speaking to customers, partners, journalists, analysts and other industry influencers. Yet staying on topic and true to a company’s messaging is harder than it looks for most people.
Media- and presentation-training prepares executives for all crisis-communication situations. After streamlining and solidifying corporate messaging, organizations should conduct videotaped Q&A sessions with each spokesperson and provide individual feedback and tips to ensure that the company story is being told in the best way possible.
Spokesperson training shouldn’t be a one-off event either. The most successful spokespeople train every six to eight months or whenever there is a significant change in corporate messaging. Good media- and presentation-training takes a lot of practice, so regular updates with the corporate team is imperative.
Clearly Defined Social Media Policies
Today, traditional publications have been supplemented with powerful new media outlets – everything from social networks for friends, colleague and industries, to video logs that can be accessed anywhere, including iPods and Blackberries, to pseudo RSS feeds that keep people informed with up-to-the-second news.  Since Media 2.0 or “new media” is here to stay, it is important that SMBs embrace it, but with caution. 
Due to the real-time, anywhere access of the outlets, companies are at risk of having employees “share too much” – ultimately plunging a company into a crisis situation. Think about the possibilities:  One employee can Twitter about details of a new product, giving away a key competitive advantage; another could post about a customer experience on a blog, endangering the relationship; another can post an inappropriate picture or video, tracing back to his or her employer.  

It is critical that SMBs define their social media policies and educate employees on them regularly. A social media policy should detail approved and unapproved outlets, list the topics employees can and cannot discuss on these outlets and when and how to obtain marketing and PR permission before posting information or creating a presence online. While these tips are common sense to most, social media outlets are opening up an entire different medium from which a crisis can emerge. Simply put, preparation and employee education can significantly reduce these risks.    
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
The final step is the creation of a more traditional crisis communication plan. This document acts as a “Holy Grail” for SMBs to reference in the event of a crisis. While there is no right or wrong way to create these plans, there are a few key elements that should be included:
  • Defined chain of command: Who will be taking charge of the situation? Who needs to approve a statement or response before it’s made public?  
  • Update on spokespeople and areas of expertise: Who is the ideal executive to discuss this matter? What is his/her area of expertise? Has he/she been media trained?  
  • List of third-party references: What clients or industry influencers (analysts, consultants, etc.) will speak on our behalf? Who can help us defend or rebuild our name?   
  • Recap of social media policy: Can employees discuss this matter? Should there be any online presence during the crisis? If so, what outlets should be targeted?  
  •  Messaging: Does everything released in response to this crisis map back to the key company messaging? Does it have to be tweaked? Are all spokespeople well versed on the most up-to-date messages?  
All SMBs deal with unique crises from time to time. While it usually won’t be on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, it could result in significant damage, loss of reputation and decreased sales. Even though crisis communications should be taken seriously by SMBs, it usually isn’t. It is up to you to explain to your higher ups just how critical it really is – take the lead and get it done. 
What’s the secret sauce? Preparing a crisis plan before a crisis occurs. It is a lot of work and effort upfront, but the payoff will be well worth it. 


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