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 Why the Best Crisis Response is Preparedness

By Mike Rosen

Published December 22, 2015

can come in as few as 140 characters.  It travels at the speed of the Internet.  You can’t put it back in the bottle and catching up to it is nearly impossible.


While even the best crystal balls can’t always see it coming, a crisis can often be forecast with reasonable accuracy.  Pipelines leak.  Chemical plants suffer explosions.  Trains derail.  Planes crash.  Food can become contaminated.  Prescription drugs can kill.  Sensitive data is compromised.  People make false accusations.  Culpable or not, your top priority suddenly shifts from running your operation to defending it. 


Meantime, customers become concerned.  Contracts are scrutinized.  Politicians hold hearings.  Sales leads dry up and stock prices drop.  Within moments, the immediate future of your livelihood is on trial in the court of public opinion, where the rules of evidence are nowhere to be found.


The Lesson of Whole Foods


“It’s very difficult to prove your innocence in the court of public opinion when people want to believe what they want to believe,” Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey told the Austin American-Statesman in a story posted December 18.  Mackey was stunned at how reports of overpriced products spiraled out of control in the press throughout 2015, so the company announced the creation of an internal crisis team to engage in future rapid response without waiting for executive team consensus. 


“Part of our problem was not responding quick enough. Media is so 24/7, if you are couple days behind, then you might as well be a couple years behind,” Mackey said.


Bingo.  Mackey nailed it.  Yet, it’s surprising a company that large and high profile did not have this structure in place.


Mitigation is Possible


Fallout from a crisis can best be mitigated in two ways.  First, establishing a positive public image in advance may help to maintain credibility and establish benefit of the doubt in the earliest stages.  Organizations or individuals perceived as trustworthy and who are associated with building good will in their respective communities through charitable work, for instance, may operate with wider margins for perceived error. 


Second, to Mackey’s point, how you respond to a crisis – what you say, how quickly you say it, how often, how it sounds, and your actions – often determines survival and the length of recovery.  A timely, measured response allows an organization to take control of the narrative and drive the message, rather than becoming trapped in a perpetual defensive posture.  In rather simplistic terms, it’s the difference between the public perception of recognizing a problem and proactively taking action versus having to be told.


Second chances come much easier to those who respond rapidly, in a controlled manner with an appropriate tone and who understand the nuance between having all the answers and saying the right thing.  How you arrive at your response requires vast preparation, anticipation and immediate coordination with key stakeholders that could range from product managers and government officials to lawyers and wordsmiths.


When crisis hits, the last thing you want to do is start from scratch figuring out who to assemble and what to do.


Invest in expertise to determine your vulnerabilities. Solidify external relationships. Create internal protocols. And develop a strategy that must be deployed immediately upon a crisis event.  These steps will put you in position to properly tell your story and ultimately protect your brand.


© 2015 Rosen Media Consulting

A chief executive once said to me, “I wish I’d thought of this a year ago” referring to the hiring of media relations expertise after a crisis erupted.  By now, press coverage was raging, politicians were grandstanding and the extracurricular activity was consuming the company and catching the eyes of its stakeholders.


Having engaged with numerous CEOs and political leaders, I’ve found this to be a common response from organizations that suddenly find themselves waist-deep in a crisis they never saw coming.  They’re sailing along with a winning product or service, an effective marketing strategy and a never-ending source of leads.  And then it happens.  Product defect.  Lawsuit.  Scandalous claims.  Environmental disaster.  Even death. 


In today’s hyper competitive, electronic media, bad news

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