Uh-oh, Now What? Crisis Management Tips for Small Businesses

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Crisis Management Tips

Let’s face it: sometimes things don’t go as planned. Maybe an intern goes rogue and takes to the company Twitter account. Maybe one of your products is causing customers to get sick. Maybe a person in upper management has gotten into trouble with the law. Whatever the crisis is, how you handle it can make or break your business.

Here are some important small business crisis management tips to keep in mind.

1. When you make a mistake, you should own up to it right away. Humans run businesses, and humans aren’t perfect. Mistakes happen. The key is acknowledging mistakes instead of denying them, passing the buck, or getting defensive. Will owning up to a mistake hurt your business? The mistake itself can certainly hurt your business. However, admitting TO the mistake can only help in the long run. You’re going to lose business regardless. But some of those customers poised to walk out on you might reconsider if you’re transparent about the fact your company made a mistake.

One example often cited in marketing lore, and for good reason, is Tylenol and its parent company, Johnson & Johnson. The brand survived the infamous pill tampering of 1982—tampering that led to seven deaths. This article from The New York Times describes why: “What set apart Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the crisis from others? It placed consumers first by recalling 31 million bottles of Tylenol capsules from store shelves and offering replacement product in the safer tablet form free of charge.”

Up until that point, product recalls had been virtually unheard of, and the media attention that followed helped highlight the fact the brand—and, most importantly, the people behind the brand—were deeply concerned, apologetic, and determined to make things right. This went a long way in shaping positive public perception, and it ultimately saved Tylenol.

2. Issue a sincere statement of apology. This goes hand-in-hand with our previous point. Own up to a mistake, and then say you’re sorry. Don’t speak in vague, passive terms like “mistakes were made.” Admit the mistake, say you’re sorry (and mean it), and explain what you’re going to do to make things better.

A recent example of a brand that did this brilliantly is Domino’s. While their “mistake” was making sub-par pizza (which certainly doesn’t qualify as dangerous), the way they handled their “mistake” has gone down in brand-reinvention history. The company released a series of commercials and videos apologizing for the poor product and announcing that they would do better. Then, the company chronicled how it went about re-inventing all of its recipes. The results? Consumers responded favorably and profits grew. Read our blog post that digs deeper into exactly how Domino’s did it.

Now, let’s talk about an example where a company did a poor job. Remember the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill on April 20, 2010, off the coast of Louisiana? One of the (many) things people had a problem with besides the spill itself was the way BP handled the days and weeks following the disaster. The company appeared too wishy-washy with a leader (Tony Hayward) who delivered a lackluster apology that included the following: “We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused to their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do, I’d like my life back.”

As Communiqué PR, a Seattle-based public relations and strategic communications firm, noted in a case study about the BP oil spill, “In the midst of this poorly worded public apology, Tony issued an additional apology on BP’s Facebook for his original remarks. However, for many it was too little too late.”

3. Remember, actions speak louder than words. An “I’m sorry” will only get you so far. Your company needs to take action, and—this is important—it needs to make sure people are aware of the actions and changes that are taking place. No, we’re NOT suggesting you use this as an opportunity to promote how awesome your company is at handling a difficult situation. Let people draw their own conclusions. But you should keep people apprised of the situation and the actions you’re taking. An update in your regular customer communications (such as an email newsletter) is appropriate. Posting information in a clear and accessible place on your website is another good idea.

4. Be proactive. Create a crisis communication plan NOW. Of course, the time to deal with a crisis isn’t after it happens. You should think through various scenarios now and have plans in place for dealing with them. The key players in your company should not only be aware of these plans, but also well versed in protocol and how the plans would need to play out. Review the plan on a yearly basis (at least) and update it as needed. What should go into a plan? Here are some things to consider:

  • What will you do if your website or social media platform is hacked or taken over by a rogue intern or employee?
  • What’s the plan for handling disgruntled employees who share company secrets or who post unflattering things about your company?
  • What’s the plan for handling employees who do something, while on the clock, that doesn’t represent your company values? (Or worse, what if they do something that might be unsafe or even a health code violation, like we’ve seen from some fast food joints whose employees have done some unseemly things like this)?
  • What if someone in your company does something illegal?
  • What if someone in your company does something that jeopardizes the health/safety of customers or the public at large? (Think company drivers who cause accidents due to texting, for example.)
  • What if someone in your company gets hurt or dies on the job? (For example, consider an electrician who falls from a bucket truck.)
  • What if a customer is harmed by your product or service?
  • What if something happens to your company’s physical infrastructure (e.g. the office gets flooded)?

From the list above, you can see that crises aren’t always something to do with products/services or even your employees. A company whose building is destroyed in a natural disaster like a hurricane or tornado, along with all of its customers’ information, is a crisis as well.

Depending on your business, you’ll need to customize the above suggestions and likely include others. Allow yourself to think of worst-case scenarios. Hopefully, they’ll never happen, but as the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

5. Use common sense. Oh, common sense. You seem so straightforward and accessible, yet we’re always surprised at how elusive you can be. You might think we jest, but just consider this example where a marketing director didn’t know or have access to the password for the company’s Twitter account. Mayhem ensued when a fired employee decided to have some “fun” at the company’s expense.

You must exercise good, old-fashioned common sense when it comes to setting up processes and systems:

  • Think in terms of redundancy. One person shouldn’t hold the keys to the entire kingdom (be it Twitter or your client’s data files).
  • Think through security. At the same time, not everyone should have access to everything. Think through the protocol, who should have access to what systems, etc.
  • Listen to people—REALLY listen to them. Common sense should hold true when it comes to dealing with customers. If someone brings up an issue that seems crazy, wild, or out there, don’t automatically dismiss it out of hand. Perform due diligence and make sure there isn’t a larger issue. Yes, you might spend some time double-checking and finding out everything is A-OK, but better that than ignoring something that turns into a disaster or PR nightmare.

Does your business have a crisis communication plan? What other tips would you add to our list? Share in the comments.

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