This week on our online reputation management blog, we cross the pond to talk to Alan Stevens, a UK-based expert on building and protecting reputations around the globe. His international clients include high-profile individuals, hotels and technology companies. He is an international speaker across both traditional and social media, and the author of several books on media and reputation.

What is crisis communications?

The ability to craft and deliver a message which conveys your reaction to a crisis, in terms of your feelings, responses and basic humanity. It positions you as the central source of information, reassures stakeholders, and provides you with time to analyze the situation.

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

The main mistake is not being responsive early enough. News abhors a vacuum, and other sources will come in to fill the news void. They may be critical of your non-response or your perceived negligence, which immediately puts you in a defensive position. Another mistake is to speculate about the cause of a crisis before you are certain. You may think you are being helpful, but if you are wrong, you make the crisis worse.

How important is social media to your reputation management strategy?

Social media is critical to reputation management. News of a crisis often breaks on social media, and people will look for your response on the same social networks. You need to listen and react accordingly. That doesn’t mean responding to every tweet, but it does mean making your position clear.

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

The first step should be to find out as much as possible about the disaster, and make a holding statement, expressing regret but not liability. If something can be fixed quickly, fix it, and tell people what you have done.

How can CEOs help build and repair corporate reputation?

CEOs should be the main company spokesperson, unless their media image is really poor. They should be the person who declares the disaster over, and they should perform or announce an act of goodwill immediately afterwards. Saying sorry is often appropriate too.

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

Employees should be kept fully informed at all stages, and should never learn anything via the media. They need to be involved in whatever recovery action is required, and their views should be sought about what to do. They should be empowered to act to keep customers happy with small acts of generosity.

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

Companies need to have a set of crisis communication procedures that are agreed and tested by everyone involved. Media spokespeople must be trained. If necessary, on-call experts should be retained. Clear and open internal lines of communication are vital.