What Would You Do?

Take your pick. Whether you’re involved in the pet food poisoning incident or the offensive behavior and words of your top on-air personality, a crisis is a crisis … and you better be ready to deal with it or it might just bring you down.

Crises are not something corporate America embraces, of course. But neither should we run away from them. No matter how good your product is, a poorly handled crisis can destroy it … and even your entire company. Even though the pet food contamination appears to have been caused by Chinese wheat gluten, most pet lover-consumers will cast a wary eye for a long time towards Menu Foods and the many products they manufacture … products that were previously trusted. Even if you don’t think Don Imus is a racist, you can’t deny that his credibility, and that of your company if you employ him, is badly damaged. Whether or not the damage is permanent remains to be seen but, for now, Imus is not exactly on most listeners’ preferred radio host list. And don’t think the advertisers aren’t watching. Ask Procter & Gamble whether they want to be associated with him again. WFAN radio reports that Imus had been worth $20 million in annual revenue to the station. Now that’s a crisis!

When a crisis happens, what is important is how you handle it and yourself. You can either react (and pray) or you can institute an already in-place solid plan that enables you to present your company in the best possible light and perhaps even save your brand. Think of what it cost to develop your brand. Is that not worth every possible effort to save? The old saying that “If you just ignore it, it will become yesterday’s news” is the kind of head-in-the-sand thinking that leads companies down the road to disaster.

Just as every company needs a disaster recovery plan, so do all need a crisis communications plan … BEFORE a crisis hits. The money spent now can save you considerably more in dollars and reputation down the road.

So, what is a crisis? Is it a 9/11 style catastrophe? Of course … and isn’t it shocking that most companies in the World Trade Center on that tragic day did not have crisis plans in place? But a crisis can also be something much smaller … a law suit that draws bad publicity day after day and ruins the morale of your employees … a storm that knocks out power to your shop and forces you to fail in making promised deliveries to customers … an accidental discharge of industrial chemicals into a nearby creek … an unfounded claim by a disgruntled former employee that finds its way into the press. A crisis can even be caused by your own inability to deal with a media surge if something good and unexpected happens to your company.

When I spent three-plus years as the crisis communications chairman of a major national trade organization in Washington, DC, we dealt with issues pertaining to the early days of the AIDS “crisis.” We did what is always the best thing to do in a crisis: we tackled it head on. We told the truth. We explained the situation in layman’s terms. We talked about what we were doing to protect safety. And we went through far less bad publicity than another national group that chose to deal with the same issue by being defensive, rather than helpful.

Johnson Direct LLC


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