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Preparing For A Crisis: Steps & Communication Strategies

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As a small business owner, you probably do many things to protect your company, like investing in insurance or technology that backs up critical data. But how do you protect your brand--your company's essence--if an unexpected crisis occurs that stops customers from buying your products or services?

Here are some steps to go through now so that you're prepared later:

Ask "what if" questions. Let's say you're a company with a proprietary healthcare product. What if a competitor comes out with a similar product and touts the same claims as yours? What if a material you use to make your product is identified as having adverse effects or is deemed hazardous? Think of all the what-if scenarios that you can imagine. While it's true that companies in crisis might never have been able to imagine the exact scenario they're now in, by going through this process, you might come up with a hypothetical situation that's similar, which means you'll have some action plans from which to work.

Identify a crisis team. After you go through the what-if process, it's important to identify the core members you'll need for a crisis team. Members of this team may include legal counsel, a communications expert (either an on-staff public relations person or an outside consultant), and a marketing person who'll oversee Internet activity, such as the company website and comments on industry blogs and publications. Keep in mind that in order to be responsive and agile during crises, your core team needs to be lean. Too many people will create bottlenecks.

Work with your crisis team and develop your response strategies. While the specific ways you respond to a crisis will depend on the situation, the process, the steps the core crisis team needs to take, can be one you develop now. For example, whose responsibility will it be to collect information from certain media outlets? Whose responsibility will it be to field calls from customers? Who's the back-up person in case the main person responsible for a task isn't able to complete the task? It's important that team members understand their roles, know who is supposed to do what and when, and are aware of the protocols involved. One important point to note about crises is this: they're rarely just one-time events, but rather on-going scenarios. There may be an initial wave--an initial fall-out--but don't forget about the ripple effect. It's important that the crisis team remain alert.

During any crisis, communication is essential. And, at times, small business owners may need to assume the role of communications expert during a crisis. Here are some tips to communicating more effectively.

Collect all the information you can to educate yourself. Be as smart as you can as quickly as you can. Who needs a response? When does the response need to occur--now, later, or after a cooling off period? When you respond, you want to be smart. Sometimes not getting involved is the best strategy.

Determine your strategy for disseminating official comments. Will you post something on the home page of your website? Will you hold a press conference? Will you take calls from reporters? Will you issue a news release? Do you have support systems in place? For example, if you decide that posting comments on your website is an important strategy, are you able to update the website content yourself or do you need a web person to do it? If it's the latter, have you discussed with your web developer that he or she needs to be "on call" in the unlikely event of a crisis? Figure out things like this now so that the communication process goes more smoothly later.

Avoid kneejerk reactions to social commentary. Social commentary--i.e. people's opinions--proliferate the web on forums, blogs, YouTube, Twitter, etc. Keep in mind that just because a person puts a negative opinion out there doesn't mean you have to respond.

Stay in contact with "influencers." Who are the people who influence your business and industry and help create perception? Investors? Bloggers? Employees? Stay in contact with your influencers about the crisis topic. By doing that, you'll have a better sense when it's a dead issue.

While thinking about worst-case business scenarios is probably the last thing you want to do, taking the time to do so now will make dealing with a crisis later a little less overwhelming, should one occur.