How do I protect my business from a reputational crisis?

Sooner or later every business will face a reputational crisis on some level. Yet despite this, many still fail to actively manage their reputation, instead waiting until trouble is brewing before hurriedly cobbling together a communications response that all too often is just papering over the cracks.

In a digital age where reputations earned through decades of hard work can potentially be ruined in a matter of hours, this can be a costly (lack of) strategy.

So how do senior executives go about transforming their business from an accident waiting to happen to an organisation that minimises its reputational risk and is prepared for potential crises?

The most effective crisis handling comes from instilling a culture that proactively manages reputation and putting preparations in place before a crisis hits. To businesses who haven’t previously been embroiled in reputational crises, these preparations can seem like a waste of resources. But if you ask any chief executive whose business has been in the path of a media storm, they will tell you that proactive reputation management and crisis preparation is time and money very well spent.

Sharing responsibility

Usually reputation management is put in the hands of the director of communications or PR – who of course, should be heavily involved. But where many companies go wrong is by pigeon-holing crisis management into the “PR” box and not really thinking about it elsewhere. Reputation is about much more than just communication, and should be proactively managed continuously to minimise the risk of something bad happening in the first place and to build up ‘credits’ for when the worst happens.

To do this effectively the responsibility for a company’s reputation has to be owned not just by the PR or marketing team, but by a broad range of senior people who have the authority to make decisions, are motivated to look after the long-term interests of the business, and cover a wide range of disciplines.

Introducing a reputation mindset

Often business leaders make decisions without really considering the reputational impact – with potentially devastating consequences. A key way of integrating reputation management into your day to day business practices is to improve the capabilities and awareness of decision makers within the business.

There are a range of core skills that can be developed in your leadership team such as scenario planning, the ability to analyse situations clearly or make effective decisions under pressure. These skills can be coached and if executed properly, will result in a team of decision makers that is aware of what could be reputationally-damaging and able to instinctively consider this in advance.

An easy way to think about this is the newspaper test – would you be proud of the decision you’re about to take if it was accurately reported in the local newspaper your mother reads?

This doesn’t stop with the leaders of a business. Even the most sophisticated reputation management systems are to a large extent implemented by employees and often the first people in the business to come across a potential crisis will not be senior management, but frontline staff. You can’t expect every employee to be able to assess the reputational risk of an issue, but you can expect them to raise a red flag when something doesn’t look right, which is a culture that can be developed.

Identifying risks

A properly prepared organisation will understand where it is vulnerable, so identifying where your reputational risks are and what you can do to mitigate them is an essential process to instigate.

Risks will differ depending on the type of business but they could relate to anything from your treatment of employees to your information management processes, health and safety standards or the loss of key personnel.

Whatever your particular vulnerabilities, if you take time to identify the risks facing the business, you can firstly start preparing for what you might say if a given risk becomes reality, but more importantly, you can look at what you could change to reduce that risk in the first place.

Putting processes in place

By putting effective processes in place, you can ensure your business can react in a much more effective way when a crisis hits. One effective tool is the development of a crisis manual that acts as a simple resource for employees to refer to, telling them who to contact in which situations and outlining what the escalation procedure is, as well as simple guidance on what to do and what not to do.

Standardised incident reporting forms can help to ensure important information is conveyed to the relevant communications and operations personnel as an internal early warning system. Other forms of external early warning system such as media monitoring and social media monitoring are also vital. It’s very difficult to come to an appropriate response to an issue without being up to date and aware of what is going on in the outside world and what the media, other influencers and consumers are saying. Having these processes set up can provide vital intelligence that can help shape your response to an issue.

Of course we’re not just talking about journalists when we talk about media – you must consider people posting on social media. You can’t stop customers doing this but you can implement a social media policy for employees which can help them to think about what they post on social platforms, and can also be helpful in mitigating your liability as an employer if they post something that gets you in legal trouble.

There are many other processes that can be effective housekeeping tasks within a proactive reputation management strategy – too many to mention here. But one of the most important is practice. Company spokespeople need practice in the form of media training, which should be tailored specifically for your business and designed to give spokespeople experience of delivering messages under robust questioning, practising tackling awkward questions, and gaining some confidence in front of a camera.

As well as the media training, once you have developed a crisis response plan it is useful to practice it by running a simulation exercise. However much preparation you do, people can still freeze when a crisis occurs, or you can discover that you forgot an important element of the plan. It’s much better to discover this during a simulation exercise than during the real thing.

In summary, reputation is not something you can ignore until it is under threat. Perhaps Warren Buffet said it best: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

Written by Ian Morris, Director

This post first appeared in SME Club Manchester on 17th January 2017:

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