Many small business owners underestimate the importance of a well-established communications plan for protecting your reputation until a crisis occurs and their business is under intense public scrutiny and financial threat.
In the early 1990’s, I served as a spokesperson for City of Edmonton’s Public Works Department. One spring morning, a city worker’s garbage truck was in a collision with a speeding car. The city worker, Burt, was critically injured. I got to know his family over the following few days as I worked with them and the media. On a rainy Saturday morning on the May long weekend, as I sat in a McDonald’s with my children, Burt’s Mom called to let me know that he had just passed away. It was a terribly sad day.
Many years later, when a President of a Canadian energy company mentioned that he never wants to go through the trauma of dealing with a worksite fatality again, it made me think about how CEO’s, who haven’t shared that tragic experience must feel. How could they be as concerned as they should be about the safety of their workers if they haven’t been through the experience of telling a man’s wife that he’s been killed on the job? I’m not saying that they aren’t concerned and many are doing everything they can to prevent accidents, but until you have been through the wringer, how can it be THE priority for you or your company?
To be specific, I speak about the topic of dealing with the news media during a crisis, such as a fatality, but the best way to deal with a crisis is not to have one in the first place. If a worksite fatality can be prevented, then there’s obviously no story, no pain and no time spent speaking to investigators and reporters.
I recommend that all small and large businesses have a communications policy. It doesn’t have to be long or overly detailed or awkward. It starts with deciding who speaks for the company and who backup spokespeople should be. Everyone else from the organization should be forbidden from speaking to the media at any time. Some may see a policy like this a being a little too “big brother”. Trust me, in a time of crisis, customers of a business and the general public want to hear from the face of the organization, the person who can speak on behalf of the company and make decisions.
The policy should also make it clear that whoever does speak for any organization should always follow corporate policies when they do speak. This way, there’s no room for personal opinions or guesswork. It should also state that those who do speak to the media would receive some form of media training. I know I’m biased because I do this for a living, but I’m constantly amazed how organizations anoint somebody as their spokesperson, but then don’t give them any training to prepare them. Not doing it can leave you floundering when you need the skills the most.
Finally, a good communications policy should include something on social media. I see all kinds of companies struggling with ways to safeguard themselves from one of their employees saying the wrong thing on Twitter or Facebook. They could start by putting a paragraph about social media into their communications policy to make it clear that it’s strictly against the rules to write anything that would bring embarrassment to their company, clients or other stakeholders.
Develop a communications policy; follow it and it will be worth its weight in gold when something unforeseen happens to your business. With so much talk about corporate brands, failing to protect yourself in crisis situations is like playing Russian Roulette.
Grant Ainsley is a speaker and media trainer from Edmonton, Alberta and will be speaking to TEC groups across Canada in 2013. You can find out more about Grant at http://www.grantainsley.com.