In a world where bad news can travel globally in an instant, getting prepared to defend your brand in advance of crisis situations has never been more important.
Social media gurus will advise organizations to make sure their communications plans harness the power of online communications; media training experts will reinforce the need to have trained spokespeople at the ready; and, of course, there's always the need to keep those crisis manuals updated.
But there's one, all-too-often-overlooked component that goes to the heart of building and maintaining a good reputation: taking time to build community goodwill to give you air cover if a fire, serious accident or environmental incident actually occurs. Doing so will help you to shorten the crisis life span and recover sooner, at less cost and less reputational damage than you thought possible. Community engagement simply is the right thing to do when you abide by the Golden Rule and demonstrate humility, transparency and gratefulness for public support during a crisis.
Being unprepared to manage the communications around a crisis is a risk that no organization should be willing to accept. As Warren Buffett has said, "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it."
Before the Crisis – Building Your Network of Support
Any good director of manufacturing or EHS professional knows that building and maintaining a good relationship with local first responders is a smart idea. Companies should invite the fire department to their sites to learn about operations, access points, evacuation procedures and the like. Some organizations also will join with the fire department to participate in drills. This process builds an understanding between the company and first responders that provides obvious operational and safety benefits.
The communication benefits also can be significant. When the cameras are pointed at the fire chief to explain what happened in an incident, the chief can respond that the rescue operation went smoothly because the responders had trained in advance and knew the facility. Or, he can say how lack of familiarity hindered their efficiency.
By extension, management also should take the time to get to know local community leaders, such as the mayor or town manager. So many times, the ranking local politician or a community leader will get the first call from the media. Building a relationship with those folks, supporting the community through philanthropic contributions and encouraging employee volunteerism – ideally, allowing employees to contribute at least a few hours on company time – can go a long way when crisis hits.
If an incident happens and the media call the mayor for comment, you would prefer that his or her first response is something like this: "My, that sounds like a terrible situation. But I know that company and those who run it to be smart, thorough and decent people who support this community. I'm sure they'll do the right thing," rather than, "That sounds terrible! I don't know much about them, but you can be sure that we will get to the bottom of what happened and demand accountability."
After the Crisis – Engaging Directly
After the cameras are turned off and media coverage fades, it is tempting to turn your focus inward and work to get your operations running again without remembering to keep the community informed as to your progress. Even if the incident was handled well and the company's brand held up in the face of crisis, continuing to communicate is vitally important for rebuilding, and even enhancing, trust. In fact, as John F. Kennedy once said, "In the Chinese language, the word ‘crisis' is composed of two characters, one representing danger, and one representing opportunity."
The media may or may not be interested in telling your story of resurrection; regardless, you shouldn't rely on them alone to tell it. Your customers, employees and the community as a whole will want to hear it from you directly. Take time in advance to think about how you can address questions such as: What will the community want to know? What can we do and say to regain or continue to earn their trust and confidence? What's the best way to engage with them?
Here is a good starting list of audiences and tools for engagement:
- Customers: Use regular email updates and prepared talking points for sales teams to discuss the status of operations and any customer-specific impacts.
- Employees: Dedicate a page or area on your website to the rebuilding process and the investigation into what went wrong. In addition, thanks to electronic media, an email update for employees and the community need not be an onerous project.
- Community leaders: Hold in-person updates for community leaders such as the mayor to brief them in advance of public statements so they know what to expect and "feel" the personal attention. It may be helpful to think of such people as "keynote listeners," who should be engaged in, not just present for, the conversation.
- Community overall: Hold town hall meetings with residents, offering an overview of the investigation and rebuilding plans, plus a chance to ask questions of management in an effort to be transparent. If you don't already have one, establishing a community advisory board or issuing community engagement updates can be a dramatic step forward in community relations, provided you stick with your plan, ensure transparency and actively listen to the feedback (even if you are unable to act on all of it).
- Media: Pursue regular outreach to media with updates on key milestones, including the investigation results and resumption of operations.
The Benefits of Engagement
The recent experiences of the onshore gas and oil well drilling industry are instructive. The industry, utilizing hydraulic fracturing, faced heavy opposition in the early 2000s. After a few incidents and accidents, environmentalists and activists were quick to paint the entire industry as a bad actor and the science of fracking as flawed and dangerous to the environment. In response, the industry began to highlight the extensive safety and environmental precautions, and positioned its high-quality operators as responsible, responsive corporate citizens (and, at the same time, distanced itself from, and actively discouraged, irresponsible operators).
In Pennsylvania, a coalition of industry partners formed the Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC) to be the face of drilling in the state. Anchored by a well-designed website full of information about the realities of fracking and safe operations, the MSC combined lobbying efforts with direct community outreach in the form of everything from town halls to advertising. Today, the economic benefits (including well-paying jobs) of the industry are undeniable in Pennsylvania, which has helped to reinforce the more positive outlook about the industry. While some environmental activists continue to target the industry, operators in Pennsylvania in particular have been able to gain significant public support, rebuild trust and strengthen their "license to operate."
The objective in rebuilding trust with the community is the same as it was in building it in the first place: making sure there is extra goodwill in the bank so you get the benefit of the doubt if tough times come your way.
Matt Barkett leads the crisis communications practice for Dix & Eaton, a Cleveland-based strategic business communications consultancy. Barkett counsels clients during critical moments in their history, including safety and environmental incidents, regulatory investigations, outsider activism, labor union issues, bankruptcy, M&A and downsizing events. He specializes in corporate representation in aerospace, mining/energy and manufacturing. He can be reached at 216-241-3073 or [email protected]