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Managing a firm’s reputation when it counts

More than 70,000 disasters occur around the globe each year. Add to that number thousands of other actions that result in a serious crisis, and you begin to get a sense of how vulnerable an organization’s reputation can be. Natural disasters, accidents, high-profile harassment cases and major safety issues all constitute threats to professional careers and a company’s reputation. Whatever the cause, it’s highly likely that some type of crisis is going to affect your organization in the near future.

Most leaders recognize the responsibility to protect the reputation of their organization and understand the implications when a crisis is not appropriately managed. This challenge becomes even more daunting if the crisis reaches the media. In today’s information-intensive environment, where a cell phone can record an event and social media can transport it to millions, the requirement to develop and maintain an effective crisis management and communications plan is essential.

While many crisis situations cannot be completely anticipated, all share a common set of elements that require definite and immediate action. If these elements are ignored, the business and its leadership team will be significantly harmed and the firm ultimately could collapse or be reorganized. When companies as large as Enron Corp. and WorldCom Inc. can be destroyed in just a few weeks, what could happen to your organization?

On the other hand, when a crisis is managed effectively-as was accomplished at Johnson & Johnson during the Tylenol crisis-an organization can enhance its reputation. Perhaps no one has demonstrated the benefit of effectively managing an extraordinary crisis more than former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

What are some of the more common events that can trigger a crisis and cause a reputation nightmare? They range from natural disasters and a dangerous chemical spill or explosion to a government compliance issue, an employee accused of a serious crime or a data center crash that accidentally exposes confidential information. Others include a significant drop in your company’s stock price or a layoff or plant closing.

For the past 20 years, I have been actively engaged in the business of protecting the reputation of leaders and their organizations. I have personally experienced managing such challenges as the chief reputation officer of a Fortune 500 company and now as a consultant in reputation management. In every situation, the opportunity existed to anticipate and prepare. However, in many cases, the organization viewed the investment in preparation as a luxury instead of a necessary cost of doing business.

What can you do to protect your organization and your own career if a serious crisis comes your way? The first step is to develop a crisis plan that, among other elements, should include:

  • your organizational philosophy and behavioral standards;
  • a hierarchy of protection (whom do you protect first?);
  • key, overarching messages that describe how you relate to customers, employees, suppliers and the community;
  • identification of a crisis team and members’ individual roles; and
  • creation of specific talking points that address the most probable crisis scenarios.

When a crisis strikes, your team will have the basic information needed to address questions that will arise as the media and other entities begin their investigation.

Next, formal training on how to interact with the media is essential. This should include a tutorial on how the media operates and the strategies you can deploy to protect your organization, plus on-camera simulations so you can practice and assess your skills.

Anticipation, preparation and practice are critical to successfully managing any crisis. The greatest risk an organization faces is ignoring the inevitable. Executed properly, an effective crisis management and communication plan can help an organization successfully traverse any serious situation, minimize the financial impact and potentially improve the organization’s position in the marketplace.

Randal A. Simonetti is founder and CEO of Ignition Consulting Ltd., specializing in crisis management and communications.

9/2/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.

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