Editor’s note: This article is a starting point for creating your crisis management plan but should not serve as a substitute for professional advice.
In the weeks following the tragic and terrible limo crash outside Albany this past October, you likely found yourself defending your industry and possibly your own company to friends, family, and clients. Politicians were almost too eager to jump on the bandwagon, even before the investigation was complete, and the black mark on the transportation industry was swift and lasting—at least for casual media viewers who only saw the headlines. Articles focused on the loss of human life—and rightfully so—but rarely did the press delve into the safeguards already in place that should have prevented this accident.
We’ve been here before: Operators may still be defending the difference of chauffeured transportation and TNCs to current and future clients, but that has become just another component of smart marketing. Thankfully, these types of catastrophic incidents that grip national and international headlines and send shockwaves through our industry like the accident in N.Y. are few and far between. That doesn’t mean, however, that your company is immune to a localized PR crisis. Anything from a small fender-bender to a major lawsuit lobbed against your company to an employee’s bad behavior to an insensitive comment on social media can thrust your operation reluctantly into the spotlight, so the best way to deal with it before it destroys your reputation is to plan ahead for it.
Appoint Your Crisis Team
It’s 4:45 a.m. on a Tuesday with only a skeleton crew working. Your frazzled overnight dispatcher is nursing a healthy grudge against the chauffeur team as fervently as he’s downing his fifth cup of coffee while eagerly awaiting his morning-shift relief when he gets a call from a reporter about the minor accident with your limobus that happened Saturday night. No one was hurt, and the clients were immediately taken care of, but the reporter is hot to make this a story about bus safety after a city transit bus crashed a few weeks prior. Plus, the incident was never addressed with staff, and the rumor mill among employees was strong. Your overworked dispatcher, who heard one of the more nefarious versions of the rumor, was all too happy to unload on the reporter. Oh, no. Now you have two crises on your hands.
First and foremost, you should have a policy for who can speak on behalf of your company—and it should be explicitly explained to staff who deal with the public in any way via the phone, social media, email, or other technology. A smart reporter will try a few different ways to get a comment from the company, so your staff should have a person to refer them to at any hour of the day. A “no comment” answer can be just as bad as oversharing. Staff being confronted with those inquires need to be trained on how to respond to such requests: The tone of the reply needs to consistent but delicate. There’s a big difference between “You’ll have to talk to our CEO about that” and “Our CEO is handling all media inquiries. Would you like me to connect you to him now?”
"You should have a policy for who can speak on behalf of your company."In the case of larger and more serious incidents, you’ll need a team of managers working in conjunction to handle everything from insurance issues to distraught family members to nervous clients. These key people should be selected carefully to ensure that they are best suited for the tasks at hand. One of the things that makes our military so skilled and adaptable is their preparedness in any situation, so conducting a dry run several times a year with a different scenario each time is a good idea.
Keep Emotions in Check
Some incidents are obviously worse than others, so it’s vital to select the correct people to speak for the company. That duty often falls to the CEO, president, or chairman, but they might not be the best choice in all situations. For example, if the CEO’s son was arrested for selling drugs out of the company, you clearly don’t want the CEO to be the point person. Use good judgment and consider the optics if you were on the receiving end of the message rather than the one delivering it. Conversely, you want a person who is adroit at handling a crisis. Showing compassion and empathy is key, but sticking to the facts is crucial. It also goes without saying that the spokesperson shouldn’t be combative, hostile, or try to blame others while acting on behalf of the company.
Brief Your Team for a Unified Response
It’s natural to want to keep the incident under wraps and tell only those who need to know, but that is often a recipe for disaster. Employees talk to each other, and when they aren’t given the truth, they can often fill in those blanks with speculation and inaccurate information. As soon as possible after the incident and in the days following, senior management should brief the entire team on what happened and how it should be addressed with customers. In the case of an accident, the investigation may be lengthy (toxicology screening alone can sometimes require months), so additional updates may be necessary. All staff should understand their responsibilities in communicating with people outside the company, including inquisitive family members and friends.
Craft an Empathetic and Sincere Message
It is possible to plan ahead and prepare a general and all-purpose statement from which to build your public response with the details of this incident—the recipe of effective messaging is generally the same at its core. Most reputation managers agree that the best way to handle it is to be honest and show sincerity in cases where your company was responsible. The statement should be sanity-checked by a neutral third party such as an attorney or PR firm, especially in more serious cases where details of an ongoing investigation shouldn’t be shared. Just like it’s never a good idea to hide facts from your team, the PR crisis becomes that much worse when it’s discovered that your spokesperson either lied or didn’t show the appropriate level of empathy. Plus, be wary of the non-apology statement where you subtly or overtly blame the offended party for being offended or over-explain your point of view. Your response is being judged as hard or harder than the mistake. And goodness, don’t blame an overly PC society or drag your fight with your local regulatory agency into it. Just don’t.
Get Ahead of the Crisis, If Possible
The pace of information today is almost mind-blowing, but getting ahead of the crisis before it’s blasted on social media or on your local TV station is possible. Having that well-prepared statement handy for when the press comes calling after your chauffeur is arrested for assault, or when posting an apology before that insensitive word or phrase accidentally used in your newsletter creates a narrative of its own can mean the difference between controlling the message and living in perpetual damage control mode—which can spiral faster than you think. If you’re still assessing the situation, there’s nothing wrong with saying that, but saying nothing means that others will create the narrative for you, and that might be harder to undo than anything.
"As the owner or senior management of the company, the buck stops with you, regardless of whether you made the comment."Responding to Offensive and Insensitive Comments
In 2017, Adidas sent an email to participants of the Boston Marathon with a subject line that read, “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!” While most people would have interpreted that as a message of sincere respect for completing such a grueling run involving months of preparation and conditioning, the memory of the Boston Marathon bombing—only four years prior—that claimed the lives of three and injured hundreds more was still fresh in many minds. In this case, “survived” took on a different meaning than intended. Adidas didn’t hesitate to issue its heartfelt apology for a tone-deaf email subject, which likely cut its time in the headlines down to just a few days or less. Moreover, it owned up to the mistake from the jump and didn’t destroy its reputation in the process.
Stupid or insensitive things will happen, especially when you have numerous employees posting to your social media or handling your customers on the phone and via email, and even if the message’s intention was free of malice, the fact is that people were offended and now feel differently about working with your company. When those mistakes happen, deal with them quickly by removing the offending post, showing contrition for the action (it’s a learning experience), and taking on the brunt of the blame. As the owner or senior management of the company, the buck stops with you, regardless of whether you made the comment. If you find yourself apologizing more often than not, it’s time to reassess your public relations policy and do a better job in guiding your staff.
Remember: Apologize right away, take responsibility for the occurrence, and make it clear that it won’t happen again.
“Innocent Bystander” Crisis Management
Several years ago, after the death of an unarmed black teen named Trayvon Martin in Florida, anger was at a fever pitch. Director Spike Lee, in a moment of heightened passion, tweeted what he thought was the address of the man accused of killing the teen. The address was actually for a couple who were unrelated to the accused. After days of death threats and people showing up at the door of the couple, Lee owned up to his mistake.
Just this past summer, emotions were again running high when White House Spokeswoman Sarah Sanders tweeted that she was asked to leave a restaurant because of her politics and connection to the president. The response on both sides was crushing. Not only was the actual restaurant trolled on social media but so were those with the same name in the D.C. and Virginia areas. In both cases, uninvolved parties were dragged into the fray.
"... the message should be short and sweet, should not include your personal assessment of the company or incident."This is where preparedness will be a benefit in an industry where there are numerous companies with similar-sounding names or DBAs. The restaurants had to defend their reputations even though they weren’t affiliated in any way with the tweet, and luckily, had the backing of Yelp to monitor the false negative AND positive comments that were being posted. In this case, the message should be short and sweet, should not include your personal assessment of the company or incident, and should neither be the time or place to air grievances on any related or unrelated issues nor a pitch for your company: “We are saddened to hear about the accident and hold the families of those involved in our thoughts, but we are not associated with XYZ Limousine. Best wishes to all involved.”
Be Prepared for the Blowback
No matter how carefully you handle a crisis, you should know that it may result in client loss—some people may never be able to forgive and forget, depending upon the situation. Evaluate your response after each crisis, and make adjustments as needed for the next incident. The good thing about PR is that it’s not just about damage control in the moment. A good PR campaign may not only change the perception of your company, but also may increase your stable of clients because of how your company comported itself. There’s nothing worse than a company that is built on customer service and relationships showing an ugly and compassionless underbelly. People want to do business with companies that value their employees as equally as their customers, but also one that doesn’t protect those who harbor racial or other animus toward members of your clientele. Welcome the complaints as gifts and treat them as teaching moments.
Finally, when it doubt, seek a professional. At the very least, you should always run your message past your attorney or insurance representative in the most serious of cases, and follow their advice. What you say to the public can be used against you at a later time when it’s much more than your company’s reputation on the line, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.