In the last two weeks, the outdoor community has been faced with several reputation crises: Camber Outdoors’ announcement of the “first ever” CEO diversity pledge and, this week, the resignation of REI CEO Jerry Stritzke and Camber's Deanne Buck.
Each story has and will garner significant discussions about what should and should not have happened. Dialogue is happening online, around water coolers, with friends and with colleagues. Hard conversations are taking place and passions are running high. Questions will persist. And questions are rarely a bad thing.
There are lessons to be learned about the importance of communication, as well as preparation for public relations crises. Today’s 24/7 news cycle demands it given that a crisis can happen at any hour of the day. Being prepared will help prevent communications pitfalls that could send a challenging situation from bad to out of control in a New York minute.
Having handled crises for the Mayor of New York, ski resorts, and several trade organizations (ranging from violent out of control community meetings, fatalities, management changes, large scale layoffs to unexpected political changes), I have developed a list of best practices that, when used properly, can begin to alleviate a crisis — especially when the walls seem to be tumbling down.
The three phases of crisis management
Crises are all-consuming, emotional, and exhausting. As a PR professional, you need to be very clear and purposeful during each phase and make sound, albeit oftentimes immediate, decisions. Each phase, consisting of the 3 “Rs” of crisis management, requires a specific plan, timing, tone, and response.
Phase 1: Immediate response
This action is taken immediately after the crisis occurs or is announced. Phase 1 involves gathering the crisis team, deciding upon the first outbound communication, (e.g., a statement, interviews or [rarely] a press conference), developing a Q&A, and handling the logistics for all of the above.
Phase 2: Remediation
This phase occurs in the few weeks following the crisis and extends the messaging of the initial announcement. Does this require Town Halls or a listening tour? Does the organization need to send out weekly progress reports regarding the crisis? Are there policy changes that need to be discussed and reviewed? Are there longer-term implications for investors? Plans for social media?
Phase 3: Restoration
This phase incorporates long term planning and execution of a strategic vision and communications plan which will vary based on the nature of the crisis.
5 best practices for crisis management
1. Plan ahead.
This will help prepare communication teams for the worst and help to alleviate the pain, though not eliminate it completely, and it’s critical, as it enables communication pros to make decisions calmly, not in the heat of battle, which can include things like a controversial issue, a physical crisis on site, a fire, a leadership change, a product recall, or a community demonstration. You will need professionals. (Don’t cut your PR teeth on a crisis.) Some tips:
- Designate a crisis team: Have a designated team and phone tree with cell phones on a list for all members including management, public relations, investor relations, social media manager, website team, human resources, community affairs, legal team, and operations (if necessary).
- Identify the lead: Know who is the lead, designate that before hand.
- Determine the spokesperson(s): Who is designated and who will be prepped to speak to the media and other publics
- Assemble a “war” room: Have a process/timeline for assembling the team and a venue/room.
- Distribute the actual plan: Have the details of the crisis plan in several locations (not just in the company headquarters, in case the company headquarters has to be evacuated).
- Update the media list: Have the most up to date media list ready to go.
- Check your social channels: Ensure that social channels are in working order and ready.
2. Gather the facts.
Before issuing any kind of statement, gather the facts. Then confirm them. Hire outside help if needed. Then confirm those facts again and again. Understand that the outcome of the facts and intelligence gathered may result in a change of leadership, thus, in addition to the actual crisis, you may need to be prepared to address this change.
3. Remember your audiences.
You will likely have a few audiences that have to be communicated to first, and there is definitely an order of priority. If this is an issue of safety, (e.g., an incident or fire onsite), the first priority will be any employees impacted on site. If it’s an announcement about a leadership change, merger, layoffs or other non-threatening issue, there is likely a Board of Directors, senior management, employees, sales reps, retailers, or others. (If you’re a public company, it’s an entirely different ball game.) Audience priorities are determined by the nature of the crisis. Each audience will likely need a personal and tailored approach. And don’t forget the lawyers, especially if you’re public. Any form of written apology, press release, statement, etc., will need to be reviewed by your legal team, especially if the crisis is likely to impact the stock price.
4. Make your first public-facing communique thoughtful, transparent, and consistent.
This first statement will shape the crisis immediately and is the most important. Honesty and transparency are critical, as well as an actual apology. The statement needs to include the positive actions being taken and a timeline for these steps. The statement should be hosted on various sites (decided on a case by case basis), whether it’s the company website, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Sometimes a press conference is warranted, sometimes not.
Your team will need to divide and conquer in order to deal with media inquiries, social chatter, retailers, key accounts, communities, board of directors, investors, and sales reps, among others. Develop a Q&A of anticipated questions and answers. Review and rehearse those questions. Decide who is going to be the media contact for inbound questions. This pro should be experienced in crisis communications.
5. Pave the way for positive change.
Crises have a way of spinning out of control and, sometimes, can be dire for a company. However, if handled properly, the learnings imparted from a crisis may lay a strong foundation for positive change and bring people together. It may even be an opportunity to create a positive perception of the organization – as long as news surrounding the crisis is handled in an effective and efficient way.
The outdoor industry is strong, resilient, caring and incredibly devoted. Difficult challenges bring this community together and lift it up. This time will be no different.
Chris Goddard’s own crisis management team, which includes Account Director Wendy Agudelo, director of Client Services Meryl Rader contributed to this article.