There is frequent discussion about effective “crisis PR” – which companies and individuals responded well to a media or reputation crisis and which didn’t (think: BP, Anthony Weiner, etc.). The timing, tone and message of crisis response is examined and critiqued continuously. You need only do a quick Google search to find endless opinions and debates on crisis response “do’s and don’ts.”
Where the discipline of crisis communications gets far less buzz is crisis prevention. The typical focus is so much on reacting effectively to a media crisis that business leaders (including a surprising number of PR counselors) often short change, if not entirely neglect, the all-important steps that should be taken to prevent an issue from escalating into a PR crisis in the first place. As the old saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Several of my colleagues and I presented on this very topic earlier this year at a series of seminars hosted by risk management leader Chartis Inc. (formerly AIG). We spoke to hundreds of in-house risk managers and insurance brokers about the importance of reputation risk management and how it’s an essential component of enterprise risk management (ERM). It was a terrific invitation by Chartis, particularly because it signaled that the world’s leading risk management experts understand the important role reputation management and PR risk mitigation play in the risk management mix. In other words, the experts at Chartis “get it” and see real value in helping their clients get it too.
So, how should organizations mitigate reputational risk? What can be done to head off seemingly unpredictable threats?
An obvious yet too often overlooked first step is investing in building a positive reputation. This means companies and executives need to (continuously) make deposits of “goodwill,” by proactively engaging media, in addition to employees, communities, customers, advocacy groups well before any issue arises. The absolute worst time to try to make friends is in the midst of a crisis.
Another critical and often neglected step it to track and act on early warning signs, such as spikes in employee turnover, increases in complaints from customers, investors, community groups, etc., unusual or negative activity percolating on social networks/blogs, more aggressive activist attention, etc. In most of the crisis scenarios our team has encountered over the years, we eventually learn that there was indeed a warning sign (if not several) that went ignored.
Savvy organizations also regularly and officially audit reputation risk, looking inside and outside the company to assess and prioritize potential threats, similar to how they examine operational and financial risks. This work, while too seldom completed, is at the heart of truly effective reputation management. Knowing your vulnerabilities is more than half the battle.
So, while there’s no doubt it’s important to hone crisis response skills, it’s equally, if not more important, to commit to mitigating reputational issues before they snowball. An “ounce of prevention” really can make the difference between a manageable issue that’s resolved without incident and a full-blown reputational crisis that can cripple a business.