14 March 2019, 16:26 PM
  • Your business's good name may be your most valuable asset, but would you know how to protect it in a social media storm of negative press?
Crisis management: could your business survive a storm?

If there’s one thing we can thank the last months of Brexit uncertainty for, it’s the opportunity to war game business scenarios. But what of the every day crises your business faces that can be controlled? Just how would you manage a storm in your own shop? It’s easy enough to imagine: an employee lose a finger while slicing ham; activists launch a hate campaign against your decision to stock foie gras; a vocal social media user states that a pasty from your shop gave him food poisoning. The chances of reputational damage have never been higher, so how do you effectively manage a crisis?

“When I get the call it’s usually three o’clock on a Friday when the boss has left or is uncontactable on a train or plane,” says Abby Mangold, MD and founder of Mangold Consultancy and crisis comms whiz. Abby is one of a band of professionals quietly working to help businesses prepare for their worst nightmare: a high profile crisis that puts reputations on the line. “When it’s your baby, the business you’ve nurtured for years, and suddenly you’re facing The Daily Mail, the trade press, the BBC… that can be very difficult. You can feel pushed into making a statement when you don’t actually know what you’re saying. It can be quite overwhelming.”

The good news is indies have an advantage. “I’ve done an enormous amount of work in the food industry,” says former BBC journalist Abby. “The thing that strikes me about indie fine food businesses is there’s intrinsically a lot of trust in those brands. Studies have shown people don’t trust big business – these days corporations are up there with politicians and journalists when it comes to public perception – so when you’re perceived to put quality or animal welfare ahead of profit I think you get more latitude. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be really careful. Reputation doesn’t last forever and a name built up over a number of years can be destroyed very quickly.”

So how can you mitigate the likelihood of a public relations disaster: a food safety breach perhaps, or an accusation made by an employee? The key is to think and plan ahead, advises Abby. “With new clients we often do a reputational risk audit, looking at vulnerabilities in the business. Preparing for the most likely ones means really thinking about how you’d respond: what would you say? What should key people in the business be doing as the crisis unfolds? Time and again I see clients having issues less with the press and more with social media, so who is monitoring your social media? Best practice is to have a clear social media escalation plan to follow. It starts with a holding statement and continues with on-going communication.”

Transparency yes, but also an economy of information. “There are times during crises – particularly at the beginning of a situation – when you don’t know an awful lot. If there is an issue that’s in the public domain you need to acknowledge you’re aware of it because if you don’t you can look foolish, but you have to be careful not to make promises or suggest how a situation will be handled before you know the facts. People will want answers, but it’s better to say ‘We don’t know but as soon as we do you’ll be the first to hear’ than to speculate or lie.”

“My word of 2019 is authenticity. Whatever happens – good or bad – organisations that communicate authentically really stand out. The way you usually communicate with customers – newsletter, daily tweets, facebook posts – will have a particular tone and language. Often during a crisis we see a change in tone and customers feel ‘that’s not them, the suits have come in’. In my experience when the boss is engaged with all communications – with customers, suppliers, employees – usually that comes through and people believe what they’re being told. The absolute golden rule is never to delete a comment posted by the public. Because it says ‘I like you when you talk nicely but I won’t have you talking badly’. Some incorrect opinions may be heard more because they are retweeted or liked, but you should still be in there as much as you can giving the correct information.”

Ultimately, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. “In journalism we talk about today’s story being tomorrow’s chip paper,” says Abby. “Sometimes you just have to get your hard hat on, get down in the ditches and know it’s going to be a Twitterstorm for a few hours but it’ll move on. You can’t count on that as your crisis management policy but interest does move on.”