Should You Hire an Agency, or Go It Alone? Here’s What to Consider in a Crisis
Human nature is such that planning ahead, and in particular, planning for an unpleasant event, does not end up on the top of most people’s to-do lists. Even when there is some collective agreement on the inevitability of such things as death and taxes, 67% of Americans have no estate plan and roughly one-third of all Americans wait until the last minute to file their taxes.
The reality is that you are highly likely to face a real crisis at some point in your professional career. You will be faced with how to respond, who to trust for important counsel, and whether or not to hire a crisis communications agency. If you take away only one lesson from this article, we hope it will be that crisis preparedness lessens stress, increases chances for success, and protects your reputation.
Nothing brings a subject into sharp focus better than relatable real-world scenarios:
Scenario 1 A 20-year Executive VP at your company has hired a very good friend whom she has known for many years. On paper, this professional looks to be the perfect fit for a variety of reasons, including his specific area of expertise that will allow your company to expand in key market verticals. His references are excellent; he is bringing solid business with him to your company with no existing customer conflicts. Your communications team has a plan in place; embargoed announcements to several of your industry publications have been sent, and digital announcements are out to key clients that will be working with your new hire. The morning before he starts his new position you learn through a breaking news story, unbeknownst to anyone at your company, your new hire has been named in a complaint alleging extremely problematic behavior and if true, serious criminal conduct on his part. What do you do?
Scenario 2 You have just arrived at work. Your top-performing account manager comes to you in a panic. One of his customers has posted a negative review of your company on social media. The post is extremely detailed giving it a very credible tone and the post has tagged (1) the Better Business Bureau, (2) your State Attorney General’s office, and (3) ActionNews 29 Responds, a news show anchored by your local television station’s consumer affairs investigative reporter. The post has been up for nearly two days and is absolutely blowing up on social media where it is being shared across multiple platforms. You check your email to find you’ve received a form contact from your local BBB regarding the post, you have a voicemail from a very concerned client as well as from the television news reporter, who is running the story on this evening’s news—deadline same day 3:00 PM local time. What do you do?
If you answered, “I don’t know,” to either of the above scenarios, read on.
Because of today’s rapid news cycle, it is more important than ever to plan for a crisis and have an effective incident response plan in place. This holds true for all companies, it is also true for your business partners, customers, and clients. Reputational damage is the public relations equivalent of Humpty Dumpty—it is harder to fix than to take measures to avoid it in the first place. The way you respond to a crisis can impact your company’s reputation and have long-term business implications. As your most valuable asset, your reputation deserves the same kind of protection that you have for your house, your car, or anything else you insure.
Step 1: Have a plan.
We have fielded countless calls where the voice on the other end has no plan. You can take control now, by simply having a plan in place.
Start by creating an internal crisis response team; identify employees that are capable and suitable for the task. Then create your plan, a strategic approach to the crisis, also known as an incident response plan. Your internal incident response plan should be a tailored response protocol to a variety of scenarios. By considering all possible scenarios and anticipating potential issues, you will respond quickly and effectively when necessary. If you currently work with an agency or professional that specializes in crisis communications management and response, you are already ahead of most of your peers. Include them as you draft a plan.
Dream Team Profile:
Whether you work with internal resources or employ a crisis communications agency, your team should include the following:
- The media-savvy communications professional: This person has a strong background in journalism, media, and communications. They have established relationships with reporters and they know who to call and how to position the narrative for the most favorable outcome. They also understand the responses that are most likely to attract or deflect media engagement, depending on the situation. They can develop appropriate internal messaging, and help your team prepare for tough questions from the media and internal and external stakeholders. In short, they can help you win in the court of public opinion.
- The social media maven: This team member loves new technology almost as much as they love your company. They are masters of tracking social media sentiment, creating social media posts and content that can lower the temperature and change the conversation while monitoring and tracking everything that is being shared about your brand. Be prepared to arm them with subscriptions to social publishing and listening tools such as Hootsuite, Meltwater, Critical Mention, SproutSocial, Brandwatch, and more.
- The manager who really knows your people: This person can offer candid insights on existing sentiments, preferred goals and the way messaging is likely to land with both team members and clients. They are a bridge person between leadership, the public and communications professionals.
Timing is everything.
Time is of the essence in a crisis. Implement a notification system for your employees and give them timely, accurate information. Keeping your employees advised of the situation and how your company is responding to it will help you manage and message the crisis. Employees are unofficial ambassadors and failure to leverage their support can lead to incorrect or damaging messages to customers, clients, and the media. Silence in these situations can be self-defeating and may communicate a lack of trust.
Next, communicate with your clients and customers as well as your business partners and allies. Make sure everyone in your organization knows how to field the tough questions and can respond in a unified manner. Identify the key stakeholders and develop concise and consistent messaging that imparts all the *necessary* information.
Determine when to reach out to the media. Sometimes a quick response indicates the importance your organization places on the matter. Sometimes silence is more appropriate and more likely to de-escalate the situation.
When should you consider the services of an agency?
If you do not have the human capital ready to create, manage and execute your plan, or handle a crisis when it arises, it may be time to consider specialized support.
Begin your research on reputable crisis communications agencies before a crisis emerges. You want to know who you’ll reach out to when time is of the essence.
An outside consultant can be a valuable sounding board during a crisis. They can help you craft the best message and determine what is truly necessary to communicate while navigating and managing media inquiries and protecting your company, customers, and clients’ reputations. With years of knowledge and experience from many crises, these professionals can quickly contain the situation and prevent it from escalating.
A trusted outside crisis communications professional can provide an objective perspective and avoid the emotional attachment that internal team members may have to the organization. Objectivity allows honest conversations, shared hard truths, and direct advice. During a crisis, you want recommendations that are in the best interest of your company first. Choose an outside expert that understands you and is the best fit for your company, business, and industry. For example, law firms should choose crisis experts who have experience working with lawyers and understand how the rules of professional responsibility come into play during a crisis or media event.
Choose an outside professional with media experience.
Having a partner in place that can take on the responsibilities of managing a crisis enables you to focus on your business and gives you the peace of mind that your reputation and brand image are being protected. However, not all professionals who self-identify as crisis professionals are equal. A good crisis communications professional has many years of experience in working with the media, including managing media coverage, crafting media statements, bridging difficult conversations in interviews, training internal teams on media responses, and when possible, keeping stories out of the press. There are many technologies that are important to managing a crisis in 2023; choose a consultant that uses them. Social media listening tools, data analysis tools, and media outreach software, all are critical to staying on top of your crisis response.
The interface between Internal and External Teams
You know your business, industry, profession, and corporate climate best. That’s important when developing a plan, managing a crisis, and working with a crisis consultant. Crisis response is not one-size fits all. What works for a regional law firm probably won’t work for a software developer or a global widget manufacturer. Bring your knowledge of the political, legal, and regulatory challenges your company faces to the table when working with any outside crisis professional.
It is your job to advise them on the nuances of your business and known problems that might contribute to the crisis or create an additional or different crisis. Any crisis response professional worth your time should provide you with an NDA (nondisclosure agreement) that will allow you to speak freely and share necessary and sometimes unpleasant details. The best crisis response professionals have a wide range of expertise in crisis management, public relations, media relations, reputation management, human resources, and legal and regulatory compliance. Trust them with the truth. The more you work collaboratively and cooperatively with your crisis response professional, the better the result.
This is not a test; or is it?
Investing in crisis management training, scenario training, tabletop exercises as well as media training is crucial to preparedness. Even the best incident response plan will be less effective without practice. Make sure your team knows that a plan exists and that they are expected to implement it. At least once a year you should conduct a dry run with your internal crisis response team. After your test, you must evaluate and conduct an audit of your performance. Take a critical look at what worked and what did not. Make changes. No matter what industry you are in, crises can occur at any time, and you will experience the crisis differently depending on whether you are prepared or caught off guard.
Crisis response preparedness is the first step in managing your reputation.
From Albert Einstein to the Wall Street Journal, the consensus seems to be that crisis can bring opportunity. That may be the case, but that opportunity may come at the price of your company’s reputation or your own. Whether it is a cyber-attack, a data breach, a lawsuit, or an accusation of misconduct, a crisis can have a significant impact on your firm’s reputation. It can tarnish your firm’s or your client’s brand image, erode trust, and create a negative perception in the market – thus swaying the court of public opinion. Preparing for a crisis now, when you have the time, focus, and energy to do it right, can secure a long-term reputation management strategy that will ensure you can emerge from a crisis stronger, more resilient, and with a reputation intact.