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This Is What Companies Should Do When An Unexpected Crisis Hits

The experts at Edelman share how leaders can weather a PR nightmare and what they absolutely shouldn’t do.

From E. coli outbreaks at Chipotle to sexual harassment allegations at Fox News or the Weinstein Company, to reaction to Russian purchases of Facebook ads during the election, it seems like news of a fresh scandal or crisis breaks nearly every day.

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To distance themselves from scandal, some companies change their name in the hope that people forget. Remember GMAC? Probably not, that’s because executives there didn’t want to be associated with the financially strapped General Motors, so they renamed their lending services company as Ally Bank. How friendly sounding!

Most companies, though, can’t get away with rebranding. Instead, they have to tackle their crisis head on–take their lumps, find ways to be publicly transparent, and somehow, weather the storm.

[Photo: Jonah Rosenberg]
During last week’s Fast Company Innovation Festival, some attendees had a chance to spend an afternoon with several members of the crisis management team at Edelman, the global PR and communications shop. Experts there led the visitors through a simulation of a developing crisis–the discovery of a fictional vitamin supplement startup’s tainted product and the subsequent health scare leading to media and regulatory demands for action.

This is hard stuff to do well, especially because we live at a time when, according to Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer report, faith in leaders in government, media, business, and non-governmental organizations is declining across the board. Still, done properly, Edelman’s team believes it’s possible to survive a crisis and win back the support and loyalty of customers, employees, investors, and the media.

Before the simulations began, Edelman senior vice president of digital crisis Aaron Walker shared his advice on what to do and what not to do when an unexpected crisis hits. Here’s his thoughts, edited for clarity and length:

Practice For A Crisis

Normally, when one hits, everyone’s running around with their hair on fire and they don’t know what to do. But if companies have a plan, and have practiced it, then the first thing to do is pick it up, make sure it’s not dusty, turn to page one and get to work.

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Whatever You Do, Don’t Get Emotional

The hardest thing not to do, and they shouldn’t, is get emotional. Sometimes corporate executives get personally frustrated, and they lash out. That obviously causes a lot of problems. The best thing to do is keep a cool head and stick to the plans you have in place and work with your crisis counselors on tackling the problem.

One way to avoid getting emotional is to do crisis simulations. In those, Walker says they ramp up the emotion as high as they can and get their clients to a breaking point, so they can understand what that tension can feel like in a real situation. If they see how they got to that point, when a real crisis is happening, they can say, Okay, this is where we’re starting to see some tension, we’re starting to see you get upset, and then work it back. Of course it’s a very hard thing to not get emotional for a corporate leader, especially when they’ve built their company themselves.

The thing that’s most important for a small company, or especially a startup, to remember when emotions are running high, is that there’s literally nothing you can do in the first five minutes or even the first 60 minutes to stop a crisis. So during that first hour, you want to control that emotional response, and avoid lashing out. Stop, analyze the problem, and look and see if it’s something that’s easily fixable, and then figure out how you want to communicate your understanding of the problem, as well as the steps that you’re taking to fix it.

How Social Media Has Changed The Way Corporate Crises Evolve

Social media has genuinely changed the landscape of crisis today. In the past, a company might have a press conference the next day. But now, people expect an immediate response, even within the hour of a crisis breaking. The hardest thing is making sure the company’s responses don’t sound robotic, disingenuous, or canned. Edelman works with them to prepare some responses and make sure they’re in the tone of a corporate executive, that they address the public’s needs and don’t sound canned.

Leadership Tactics During A Crisis

More than anything, when a crisis arises, the public, employees, and consumers want to see leaders take action. Leaders who can show that change is being made or something’s being fixed, that a product is being recalled or replaced, who take action that restores the confidence of the consumer, or the investor, or the employees, that’s a company that really succeeds in a crisis.

A lot of people grade the way a crisis is managed, from academics, to other CEOs to crisis experts on CNN talking about how a crisis is managed. The question is what does it mean to get it right. The best answer is crisis management that’s responsive to the public’s need, that’s interactive, and more than anything, that minimizes the time it takes to get back to business as usual. When a company’s responsive, active in its communications, and still addresses operational issues, that’s true success in a crisis.

About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications.

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