Best Practice

Protect your company’s biggest asset in a crisis

When a crisis hits your organization, you’re going to have to navigate different stakeholders with competing objectives and priorities.

But don’t forget to protect your company’s biggest asset—its reputation.

Times of crisis are going to happen to every organization. Whether it’s a business issue like a product recall, a technological crisis like a hacked system, or a personnel crisis like offensive or unethical behavior, eventually your company will have to deal with some unforeseen trouble.

When disaster happens, you can expect to hear many different, even competing, strategies from different stakeholders. It can be hard to know what the right plan of action is with so many factors to consider, especially when you’re under pressure.

That’s why you need to remember to protect your biggest asset. Crisis communications expert and private pilot Rob Shimmin offers a lesson from aviation: If the engine stops, the aircraft belongs to the insurance company. The plane can be repaired or replaced, but you, the pilot, must protect yourself. Similarly, a company’s reputation is its life; it must be protected above all else. 

In a Poppulo webinar, Rob guided organizations through how to manage a crisis, with specific tips for how Employee Communication teams can help the larger recovery effort.

First Do No Harm

Rob’s first rule of navigating a crisis applies to both aviation and business—don’t make it worse! Often, our instinct is to rush to react to a crisis, but this can have disastrous effects.

Always keep the brand in mind and be careful not to ruin your long-term reputation trying to fix a short-term crisis. You’ll need good peripheral vision to avoid both a midair collision and a brand-ending faux pas.

Employees Are Stakeholders, Too

When a crisis occurs, the company should plan to hear from all stakeholders who might be affected and gather different perspectives before deciding what to do. Often, leadership will be tempted to focus on customers or the public as the primary stakeholder group, but very rarely is a crisis just a customer issue. 

As an employee communications professional, you have the opportunity and the responsibility to advocate for employee stakeholders.

Make the case to leaders for the value that engaged, productive employees, provide to the company, both in the short term (by providing business continuity) and in the long term (by helping restore the company’s reputation).

Optimism Is Dangerous

Once leaders have gathered perspectives from all stakeholder groups, they’ll need to sense-check this information to be sure they’re making decisions based on solid information. Analytics and data can be crucial here. 

One hazard in times of crisis is group positive thinking, or “the danger of optimism,” as Rob puts it. This might look like a suggestion to sit back and wait to see if the crisis will resolve itself. Although that could occur in some cases, more often than not, the damage from a delayed response will be much worse.

So, how do you know when something is a good plan versus misplaced optimism? That discernment comes from an in-depth understanding of the business, its employees, and the industry. This is a place where your EC team naturally shines, so don’t hold back.

Gather useful information for leaders, and look for tell-tale signs that show you, “This plan isn’t going to work.” Then share your reasoning with the decision-makers to help them make adjustments.

Employees Deserve Transparency

One question Rob fielded during the webinar was about the need to be transparent with employees while the crisis is unfolding.

Along the same lines of the “wait and see” approach, companies are often tempted to keep employees in the dark, either because leaders are focused on responding to customers or the media, or because they’re trying to maintain the impression that things aren’t really all that bad.

But Rob stressed that it’s absolutely important to be transparent with employees. As leaders are gathering stakeholder perspectives and honing in on a plan for recovery, they need to be aware that any actions they take may be interpreted differently by the various stakeholders.

For example, imagine that your company is hemorrhaging money and must sell an under-performing part of the business to stay afloat. That action is going to have different implications for external stakeholders like investors than it will for internal stakeholders like employees. 

Use your status as employee experts to shape the decisions about what and how to communicate. Remind leadership that being transparent with employees early on is a way of showing them that you respect and value them.

Not only will it position leaders to better answer employees’ questions, but it will help keep employees engaged, productive, and positive about the company, which will contribute to the recovery effort.

So now you know how you can assist leaders in responding to a crisis while protecting the company’s reputation. By advocating for employees, offering your expertize, and helping leaders be more transparent, you can provide critical support to the organization in a crucial time.

For more information on how your EC team can help leaders respond to organizational crises, check out Rob’s Poppulo webinar.

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