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#PR: Tips on Leading a Brand through a Crisis
By: Gerard E. Mayers
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I am sure all of us are aware of crises some brands have had recently: Delta’s computer systems power failures, Fox News with its slow burn sexual harassment scandal, or the diving and swimming pools at the Rio2016 Games mysteriously turning green.
How a brand deals with a crisis can tell a lot about it as an organization. In PR News for Smart Communicators, Mark Renfree recently authored a blog piece about how a brand can turn its employees into brand ambassadors… even in the midst of a crisis.

Renfree commented, “Time-tested PR pros know that it’s not a matter of if your organization will face a crisis, it’s a matter of when. Yet even with a expert crisis team in place, the scramble that is the first hours and days of a crisis can cause an organization’s most important stakeholders to be forgotten: its employees. While it’s essential to focus on a transparent and progressive external response, communicating clearly and efficiently with employees can create powerful brand ambassadors in troubled times.”

Renfree also noted at the beginning of his column that a crisis can appear out of nowhere and put an organization in a precarious position: “Sometimes even despite a swift response, a crisis will settle into a slow burn,… In the event of a crisis, communicators who have a competent and well-rehearsed team in place are in the best position to lead their brand through the fire.”

The article quoted two industry thought leaders on how best to make sure your employees can be brand ambassadors even in the midst of a crisis. Torod Neptune, corporate vice president, corporate communications with Verizon, suggests four vital options to keep in mind when putting together crisis response teams:
  1. Ensure team members represent the reality of how crises need to be managed today, not yesterday.
  2. Pick "connectors" who know how to navigate the organizational stakeholder landscape.
  3. Make sure the team is populated with people who understand and can balance both the need for speed AND prioritizing being thoughtful in responding to a crisis.
  4. Make a team of doers, not just organizational nameplates.
Another thought leader, Deborah Hileman, president and CEO, Institute for Crisis Management, shared six additional tips for internal communications during a crisis with readers from Volume 8 of the Book of Crisis Management and Topics.

Start with candor as a core value
If employees are afraid to speak when they see a problem, leaders can’t identify issues and fix them. Unfixed issues can become full-blown crises. It becomes invaluable in the end if you’ve built a culture where people feel not only empowered but also driven to speak up.

Nurture a crisis culture
A crisis culture is one of non-stop readiness for the unexpected, where every employee knows what he or she is supposed to do in the event of a crisis. A side benefit to building 24/7 crisis preparedness is that it fosters a sense of readiness for change and the ability to adapt decisively and calmly.

Communicate regularly and seek employee feedback
Build a trust bank with employees ahead of time by communicating consistently and treating them with respect. If you interact regularly with the workforce, then you don’t have to scramble to put something in place in a crisis. Cascading information is useful for everyday news, but communication directly from the C-suite to the frontline is critical in a crisis.

Move quickly
Companies no longer have the luxury of time when communicating in a crisis, and employees who don’t get timely information from management will turn to social media with their questions, speculation and concerns. Even a simple statement telling employees that you are aware of an issue and are looking into it is better than saying nothing. All employees want to know what the organization is doing to get back to normal and if “normal” has changed.

Tell employees first and anticipate their questions
Even a few minutes of advance notice makes a big difference on the trust scale. To the extent possible, offer facts rather than general reassurances. Humans are hardwired to assume the worst and will fill in the blanks in the absence of meaningful facts. Don’t sugarcoat the problem. Instead, provide information in a way that helps employees process the issue in a less emotional way. Anticipate likely questions and provide honest answers as quickly as possible.

Keep communicating even after the worst of the crisis has passed
Establish a calendar for regular updates and advise employees when they can expect to hear from you. Return everyday communications vehicles to their pre-crisis schedule.
Employees can be your best ambassadors for helping handle and defuse negative brand perceptions resulting from a crisis. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to include them as part of your organization's overall crisis response strategy.

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About the Author
Gerard E. "Gerry" Mayers writes about PR and other relevant topics for PR professionals. A former PR manager for Sensor Products, Inc. (currently based in Madison, NJ), he lives in Milford, NJ.
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