By Steve Harman
Accounts Director at Ingredient Communications
Clients often tell us that they worry about how they would handle a PR crisis, and understandably so. Consumers are rightly asking more questions about ingredients and the press loves sensationalist stories about products and their impact on health. In addition, our social media culture means that everyone with a smartphone can join in the fun. Recent stories like the UK’s horsemeat scandal show that when something goes wrong in the supply chain, brands can be damaged overnight.
The immediate impact of a crisis is most likely to be felt hardest by end-product manufacturers and distributors. But producers and suppliers of ingredients can also find themselves exposed to tough questions and at risk of reputational damage.
As PR professionals with many years supporting ingredient manufacturers – and experience in healthcare, politics and business too – our team has a long track record of helping clients prevent, survive, and even benefit from a wide range of disasters.
So here’s what we consider to be the five most important lessons on crisis management:
- Be prepared
If you take just one lesson from this blog, make it this: you never know when a crisis is going to arise, but there’s no excuse for being unprepared. It’s much more cost-effective to invest time and resources planning for an emergency than it is to bring in a PR firm at the last minute, by which time the damage may already have been done. Start by visualising what different crises might look like for your company. Then ask yourself what you would do in each scenario. Who would be your lead spokesperson? Which groups would you need to communicate with most urgently? What difficult questions might you be asked and how would you answer them? How would you make sure everyone in the company knew what your key messages were?
- Put your side of the story
One of the biggest dilemmas for a company in a crisis is how much – if anything – to say. Do you ‘put yourself out there’ or is it better to keep a low profile, hoping things will calm down? The reality is that if you keep quiet, people will assume you have something to hide.
It’s better to put your side of the story and announce what you’re doing to remedy the problem. The truth will come out eventually and by revealing it yourself – and apologising if necessary – you gain control of the story.
- Be honest
Honesty is the best policy – for your business as well as your conscience. People forgive mistakes, but not deception. History is full of examples of cover-ups that were more scandalous than the original mistake – just ask the US Olympic swimming team!
- Stick to the facts
During a crisis, things can become heated and when it’s you or your company that’s under attack it can be hard to keep a cool head. However strongly you feel, it’s better to adopt a level tone and stick to providing basic factual information than it is to get involved in arguments – especially on social media.
- Learn something
It’s often said that the Chinese use the same word for ‘crisis’ as they do for ‘opportunity’.
So think about what you’ve learned: why it happened, what you could have done to prevent it and whether you could have handled it better. If your company makes positive changes as a result of painful lessons, it’s much less likely to suffer the same thing in future.