Friday, October 12, 2007

Just Own Up...

This week the condos where I live had a major catastrophe. A disgruntled resident was first assaulted by a property manager, then evicted 24 hours later. The resident immediately set up a blog, has advertised the URL to everyone on property, and has hired an attorney. To say "chaos-of-he-said-she-said" and potential media frenzy is an understatement.

However, this situation got me thinking about Crisis Management for companies and the fact that survival often hinges on what you do and say in the first few hours. What the news media report in their first stories — and how they view your coping skills — will often set the tone for the entire crisis. Chances are, the media's first impression will persist until you have overcome the problem and emerged victorious ... or you've been humiliated, fired, put out of business, arrested, sued, divorced ... the list goes on and on.

Of course, planning for crises is something we avoid. It is like buying life insurance or long-term disability insurance. Most people don't do it because they don't want to think about the possibility of their own death or disability. We have been forced by law and mortgage lenders to get accustomed to buying accident insurance for our cars, homeowners insurance for our houses. But we still try to avoid contemplating those greater disasters that can lead to the destruction of our businesses — the careers, productivity and morale of the people who work there.

Most companies have written plans for fires, storms, floods. They practice those plans frequently. Should a fire or storm or flood occur, everyone will know — without thinking — what needs to be done and how to do it. Yet, very few organizations have media crisis plans. And those that do rarely rehearse them.

The truth is most of you reading this will have a media crisis long before you have a fire or tornado or flood. And media crises in a media-driven society can be much more damaging, much more demoralizing than those hazards of nature. If and when the media discover the crisis, your skill in influencing how they report it — or decide not to report it — are key factors that determine the outcome.

The tone of the early stories usually hinges on how well reporters and editors know you, your understanding of media strategy, your experience and reflexes in dealing with journalists.
One of the most difficult steps in crisis management is making the decision that there actually is a crisis. (An annoyed customer setting up a blog MIGHT be a clue?!?) Wait too late, and you may not be able to save the sinking ship.

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