Epoch 5 President Katherine Heaviside recently penned an article for the trade publication Insurance Advocate in which she described the importance of engaging professional crisis communications experts:
By Katherine Heaviside
Here’s how it usually works. You’re finally enjoying a well-deserved day off when frantic coworkers begin sending you texts and emails about XYZ Company, your agency’s biggest client. There’s been a data breach impacting tens of thousands of customers. The company is all over social media and popping up on mainstream news sites.
As you scroll through the messages, your phone rings. It’s the CEO. You clear your throat, knowing you’re about to be on speaker in front of top management and legal counsel. Before you utter a single word he asks, “What do we do? Reporters are calling every second. The bottom’s falling out!”
At this point you have several choices. You can panic, hit “end call” and head for the hills, or you can put the golf clubs down, take a deep breath, and answer, “Don’t worry. We prepared for this in the crisis plan. Let’s get to work.”
Every day, in almost every corner of the world, the above scenario is being played out. At its most extreme you have industry giants like Volkswagen and Chipotle, both of which recently underwent crises that wound up costing millions and even billions of dollars–and wreaked havoc on their insurers’ bottom lines.
The vast majority of corporate crises, however, involve businesses and organizations that are primarily known at the local or regional level. There is a good chance these are the types of companies your agency insures. The private supermarket chain that finds itself an overnight YouTube sensation after baking an old sneaker in a birthday cake. The multi-location day care provider or nursing home operator whose license is suspended following a criminal complaint, or the not-for-profit whose treasurer absconds with a sizeable chunk of the annual operating budget.
While it’s true you can’t stop these incidents from happening, you can play a key role in containing the damage and protecting your firm’s exposure. Insurance professionals are often front and center in a time of crisis and you should consider advising your corporate clients that a crisis communications plan can be one of the most valuable tools in the company toolbox.
Finding the Experts
A public relations firm specializing in crisis management is often brought on board when a problem is brewing or when a crisis actually strikes–and can make all the difference in how messages are communicated to key stakeholders, employees, customers, and the media. But the best course of action is to call the experts before trouble erupts.
The first step is to make sure the PR firm you select has done this before–hopefully quite often and with stellar results. Check out their website. Read their case histories. Make calls to the business desks at area dailies to hear what editors have to say about them. If you have contacts at a nearby law firm, ask questions. Lawyers are rarely shy about their opinions and often work with crisis management PR firms on behalf of their clients. They’ll let you know who they like and why.
Once you are comfortable with your choice and have met with the firm’s principals, it’s time to set up a meeting with you, your client, and the firm. Don’t feel uneasy if you are not familiar with every last detail about to be discussed. This is when you get to sit back and let the PR professionals take over. They have done this before and understand that the initial hurdle is gaining your client’s trust so that negative issues can be discussed openly and realistically.
What can you expect will be covered? Chances are you will learn about the need for establishing a crisis team–key senior managers, technical advisors, and legal counsel led by the crisis management/public relations firm. These are the players who will help develop strategic responses to all affected stakeholders, such as shareholders, employees, business partners, vendors, and customers. You will also explore the need for positive communications and discuss documents that the public relations experts will draft in the coming days, including fact sheets, Q&A documents, company history, and background material on community/charitable involvement. However, one area that will undoubtedly be front and center in your crisis plan is media preparedness.
A Jump on the Reporters
Not long ago, media coverage of a corporate crisis unfolded at a far slower pace than today. Even if 60 Minutes showed up in your lobby, you still had days and sometimes weeks to prepare before the segment aired. Not today. Because of 24-hour news coverage and social media, bad news is often posted within minutes. And it spreads like wildfire, able to destroy a company’s reputation as completely as any conflagration. Little wonder then that one of the most important elements in a crisis plan is the section that contains canned media responses.
Canned media responses? Think of them as those obituaries written for famous people that sit around newsrooms until the subject passes on. At that point they’re dusted off and updated. The same is true for prepared media statements. Your public relations professional will explore with you and your client every possible crisis scenario that may need a response, from embezzlement, management malfeasance and environmental concerns, to class action lawsuits, labor issues, data breaches, and embarrassing arrests of corporate officers or workers.
These statements are vetted ahead of time by legal and ready to go at a moment’s notice once updated. When a reporter is about to post a negative article and giving you five minutes to tell your side of the story, having a head start on a statement may be the only bright spot of your day.
Nobody likes to have a crisis, but when one is handled well, a company can preserve its business, protect its reputation and may even become more respected. If handled poorly, however, the company may never recover. The difference is in the planning and execution–and selecting the right firm to oversee both.