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Crisis Communications for Small Business
A well-developed crisis plan can salve the unexpected sting.
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 by Ellie Whims
Enterprise Public Relations

Ellie WhimsThink for a moment about all of the individuals your organization interacts with over the course of a month. You have customers, employees and vendors. 

Do you know for certain that everyone is perfectly happy with your company and its products or services? 

What if someone's not?

Imagine that one of those people decides to make a little trouble for your company. Remember the recent headlines about Anna Ayala, the woman who "found" a finger in her chili at Wendy's? Wendy's estimates that Ms. Ayala's hoax has cost them $2.5 million in lost sales. And that's just in the month following her claim, and just in the Bay Area near the San Jose restaurant where the incident occurred. 

So if the unthinkable happens to you and your company, what do you do?  How do you respond? Where do you turn, and who do you talk to? More importantly, do you want to be faced with a crisis like that and not have a plan in place? 

Every organization needs a plan to enable it to handle a crisis quickly and effectively if the need arises.

Examine Vulnerabilities

The most important first step in crisis management is to prevent a crisis in the first place. Take a hard look at your company, and examine potential vulnerabilities from every angle, and seek out potential problems in your dealings with your customers, your employees, and even your vendors. 

Develop a Crisis Communications Plan

This is one of those "don't try this at home" situations. Working with a seasoned public relations professional will help you in a number of ways. A pro will be able to provide an unbiased, outsider's opinion about both your vulnerabilities and communications plans. An experienced media relations pro can anticipate questions the media will, and can therefore help you craft appropriate answers.

Your Crisis Communications Plan should:

  • Identify steps to gather information about the situation - make sure you know the pertinent facts

  • Appoint a Crisis Team - these individuals will be responsible for handling the crisis itself. 

  • Appoint a spokesperson - this person will typically serve as the point of contact between your Crisis Team and the media

  • Identify your key audiences - your customers, employees, vendors, and the media

If That Day Should Come

If the worst should happen, don't panic. Take a deep breath, and collect your Crisis Team. Examine the situation quickly and decide on the appropriate action, as well as the message you want to send to your customers, your employees, and the public in general.

The most important actions is a crisis are:

  • Acting quickly to resolve the situation

  • Tell the truth

  • Be accessible to the press

  • Show confidence and compassion

  • Communicate changes in the situation as quickly as you can

Many small business owners think that crises only happen to big companies, like Wendy's. But consider this: small companies often have a greater reliance on a smaller number of customers or clients, making the loss of one or two principal clients extremely painful. And mishandled crisis communication can damage those relationships for a long time, if not permanently.

You've probably seen in your own business that when a customer experiences a problem and you resolve it for them quickly, that customer becomes more loyal than they were before the problem. The same phenomenon is true in a crisis.  Communicating quickly and effectively to your key audiences can actually strengthen your brand image in their eyes. 

Warning: objects in the mirror are closer than they appear

The object lesson here is: don't wait. Don't wait until you are in the midst of a crisis to try to figure out what needs to be done. You will have your hands full as it is, dealing with whatever situation caused the crisis in the first place. As Louis Pasteur once said, "chance favors the prepared mind." Your best chance for a favorable outcome in a crisis is to lay the groundwork well in advance by developing a sound Crisis Management Plan. 

Ellie Whims is president of Enterprise Public Relations
a Maryland PR firm specializing in media relations 
for emerging companies.  

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