A lively panel discussion moderated by Meltwater’s Dino Delic at New York City’s Press Lounge in May yielded valuable insights from a handful of business communication leaders. Panelists included Emily Scarlett, communications head at clothing retailer H&M USA; Craig Carroll, founder and executive director at the Observatory on Corporate Reputation (The OCR); and Christel Ghattas, a corporate communicator at the media and entertainment provider Discovery, Inc. The discussion centered on best practices around risk and crisis management, as panelists spoke to issues introduced by Delic and answered questions from the audience.

The panel agreed that the best way to manage a crisis is to be open and authentic, and quickly explain what can and will be done to rectify a situation. Adhering to the company’s professed values is important. Even so, there will be some occasions where the best response is not to issue a statement at all, but to work quietly behind the scenes to resolve the issue. This includes scenarios where the perceived offense is negligible and the company has it in its control to apply a remedy.

Several of the discussion topics and the conclusions they inspired follow.

Party Image copy 3-3.png

Authenticity is key to navigating a crisis, so tell the same story everywhere you operate.

Companies using the same name around the world can’t afford to be chameleons. Letting people know what your brand stands for earns you goodwill and trust and provides you with signposts on how to operate in times of challenge. If you profess to be all about people, decision-making should always put people first. Tell a consistent story. One panelist said her company prioritized moving from social media channels operating independently in multiple countries to a model ensuring greater consistency and control of the narrative. “There are so many moving parts, but our employee in India should have a good idea what our employee in Sweden will be saying.”

Everyone owns reputation management, so familiarize employees with your corporate values from day one.

The CEO is typically the face of the company and may be flanked by internal communication leaders in times of crisis, but every company with public-facing employees has an opportunity to demonstrate the company’s values in its day-to-day operations. The panelists agreed that there’s strength in numbers. Employee engagement is almost inevitable in the age of social media, so communicate regularly with employees about expectations and positive behavior. A solid grounding in the corporate values goes a long way toward investing trust in your workforce.

Use every available resource to gather and act on your information.

Panelists agreed that effective crisis management depends on allowing cooler heads to prevail. This means getting people on the line who know what actually happened, gathering the facts, and coordinating with your team to go public. Fulltime 24/7 monitoring of social and traditional channels allows you to follow any unexpected turns in messaging, along with their context. The more tools you have to work with, the better. One panelist remarked, “They say it takes 20 years to build a reputation and three seconds to lose it, and that’s a fact.” Another panelist notes that people’s memories are short today, and sometimes we can over-respond to a reputation issue. “We’re more invested in our reputations than all of our stakeholders are. Sometimes we can over-respond a little bit.”

Given its immediacy, social media can be your greatest ally in a time of crisis.

Waking up and finding your company in the spotlight for an incriminating photo could ruin most PR pros’ weekends. Rather than watch the situation spiral out of control, one panelist spoke of using social media to track down the photograph’s source. Buried beneath 500 tweets she found her answer. Social media not only allowed her to communicate that the company was looking into the matter, it later enabled her to explain the story behind the photo, part of an exposé the company was preparing for broadcast. Everything happened in a matter of hours. As one audience member observed, “Social media isn’t always the devil. It can also be really powerful from an advocacy standpoint.”

Media monitoring not only identifies vulnerabilities, it often guides you toward solutions.

To learn what you’re doing wrong, just look to Twitter. One panelist recalled how criticism of their fitting-room mirrors was a frequent topic of conversation. The solution was easy enough, but it took social media to bring it to the company’s attention. “Rather than perceive the criticism as solely a knock on the brand,” she said, “we looked at this as an opportunity to show our customers that we were listening and were willing to make things better for them.”

Look to create real value with your media reporting, and report in real time.

Finding ways to extract value out of your information-gathering practices and using the information in real time can keep a small issue from blowing up into a crisis. “Real-time insights that can affect decision-making are more valuable than a beautiful report afterward explaining how well you did,” said one panelist. Another panelist warned against overreacting and over-communicating. While intuition often plays a key role here, the best decisions are typically grounded in facts and supporting data.

For further insight into risk and reputation management, you can download our ebook on the topic.