When a Problem Becomes a Crisis

Life is full of unexpected, uncomfortable and unfortunate events . . . a workplace accident, a lapse of judgment by an employee or a manager, a parting of the ways with an employer or a spouse. Most times, we manage these situations like every other challenge. Before long the situation is behind us.

But not always.

Sometimes an unfortunate event picks up steam, draws the attention of the media or other “interested parties” and becomes a full-blown PR crisis. With the 24-hour news cycle and social media, that shift can happen in an instant.

We’ve seen many clients whose personal or business reputations have been damaged by negative publicity. Recognizing the potential significance of a problem and taking action before it becomes a crisis can be the difference between PROBLEM SOLVED and REPUTATION DISASTER. The actions one takes in the early stages of a mounting problem can either fan the crisis flames – and bring about significant harm – or they can begin the process of restoring trust and confidence.

While no one can predict exactly which thundercloud will spawn a tornado, the typical storyline for a crisis often goes like this:

An Incident Occurs: An accident on the jobsite, an employee gains unauthorized access to data, a key employee quits and takes clients with him, a company is investigated by government regulators. These incidents can have serious business, legal or reputational implications. Fault, wrongdoing or lack of diligence may be an issue. Silence and circling the wagons is sometimes a first response.

While it’s too early to know if the incident will develop into a full-blown crisis, this is the time to be on high alert. If you haven’t developed a crisis communications plan before, begin now. You do not need to take immediate public action but gather the facts so you’re prepared to answer questions. Begin monitoring the media.

What’s Private Becomes Public. Were emergency first responders called to the scene? Does a business competitor suspect your company is being investigated or that some wrongdoing has occurred? Is an angry soon-to-be ex-spouse itching to make an example of you? Are employees sharing information about a business downturn? Don’t turn a blind eye. The problem is now public and a great deal of damage can be done before things quiet down.

Continue to monitor media and put your crisis communications plan into action, especially if anything has been shared on a social media. While you may choose not to respond, it’s usually better to respond early and through your own media channels with appropriately timed messages.

The All-Important First Response: As unfortunate as the original incident may be, it’s often the case that an inappropriate response is what turns bad news into a crisis. Failing to respond to the media, failing to address the concerns of employees, stockholders or the community, or a less-than-honest communication with the media often result in increased scrutiny.

If you or your company have not handled a communications crisis before, it’s wise to consult with an experienced crisis communications expert. Working with an outside consultant can help identify what internal issues require addressing in light of the problem, develop effective messages, and create a plan for responding to media or other stakeholders.

Be mindful to problems that require extra attention. Strategic communications on the front end can reduce the extent and duration of reputational damage on the back end. Your reputation may even emerge stronger and more resilient than it was before.