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Interview with Crisis Communications Expert Larry Smith

Expert Interviews

We are excited to invite Larry Smith, Senior Consultant with the Institute for Crisis Management, to share over 30 years of experience with our online reputation management blog. ICM is an international crisis communication and management consulting company specializing in helping organizations avoid crises, and when a crisis cannot be prevented, helps them communicate with key audiences, including employees and the media. He spent 35 years as a reporter, editor, TV anchor and news director and served as press secretary to then-Senator Dan Quayle before joining ICM in 1994. Larry is co-author of three books on crisis management, a Batten Fellow at the Darden Graduate School of Business, UVA, and has taught public speaking and media/spokesperson training for 30 years.

What is crisis communications?

Crisis Communications is one of the key elements to managing and overcoming business and organization disruptions. First, you have to establish the definition of a business/organization crisis. A business crisis is any disruption or issue that interferes with your organization doing what it does – making widgets or providing a service, and almost always it has an impact on the bottom line.

What are the biggest mistakes you see people and companies make when dealing with the media?

The most unforgiveable mistake that many organizations make is to ignore the media or say “we have no comment.” Another major mistake is for the CEO or other top executive to serve as the on-going spokesperson in a crisis. The top leader has too much to do keeping the business/organization moving forward to also serve as a spokesperson and the risk is always great that the spokesperson will misspeak, and if the CEO misspeaks, there’s no one left to step in and fix it. Another common mistake, and sometimes fatal one, is to face the media in the early hours after a crisis becomes public and invite questions from the media before you have any answers.

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How important is social media to your reputation management strategy?

Social media can be a valuable tool to use to communicate in a crisis, but it can also be the weapon that delivers the crisis. Domino’s Pizza with the YouTube video of the employee putting cheese in his nose, or the Burger King video of an employee standing in two tubs of lettuce are examples of social media that launched crises. But there are a growing list of examples of companies that used social media to tell their own stories and minimize damage from a potential firestorm.

What is the first thing a company should do when there is a PR disaster?

The first step in managing the crisis is to identify the problem – sometimes the obvious problem is only a symptom of something else – then after identifying the crisis, the next step is to identify the key audiences/stakeholders, and while part of the crisis management team is beginning to deal with the operational challenges, another part of the team is beginning to communicate with key groups, including employees and sometimes their families; customers/clients/patients, vendors/suppliers, shareholders/investors, and occasionally other audiences. In that crisis communication, key audiences need to be reassured that the organization is responding and taking action to deal with the problem/issue. Key audiences must be reassured that everything will be done to restore operations and/or service, and when it is appropriate, reassure employees that the company/organization is going to be okay and their jobs are secure.

How can CEOs help build and repair corporate reputation?

One of the most important things a CEO can do is communicate often and effectively with all internal audiences. If the CEO is reassuring to employees and honest with them, they will convey that attitude and information to their relatives and they will tell their friends. If employees and their families are uninformed and fearful of losing jobs or at least paychecks for a while, that will be conveyed to many others and undermine any positive communication coming from other sources.

What can employees do to help their company during and after a PR crisis?

Be very careful not to spread rumors, and if approached by a reporter wanting information, refer that reporter to the “designated” company spokesperson instead of attempting to speak without authority or approval. Employees, as well as top management, should NEVER go “off the record” or “on background” in talking to any reporter. That is a dangerous “game” and not worth the risk.

What can companies do to better prepare for a public relations crisis?

Having an integrated crisis operations, communication and recovery/continuity plan and practicing with it is very important. But equally important, companies should have a process in place to spot and fix all the “little things” that can simmer out of public view until one day, they blow-up and blow-out into a public crisis. Our 21 years of continuing research into the origins of crises, consistently reaffirms that nearly two-thirds of all business crises or what we call the smoldering type. They start out small, usually internally, but not always, and they are the kind of things that someone should see as a potential future problem if it is not addressed “now.” But, most of the time, those things are not recognized as future crises, or someone hopes that if they ignore it, the little problem will take care of itself. That rarely ever happens.

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