Sooner or later, every small business will be forced to respond to a crisis. The crisis could be something that directly affects your business, such as a product recall, or something external that grips the attention of the entire nation.
The growing number of marketing channels and the speed with which news and comments fly have disrupted the way that businesses handle, manage, and communicate during a crisis. In the pre-Twitter days, you had more time to react. Today, a response is required almost immediately to any negative situation.
We asked three experts to share their thoughts on prudent ways that small businesses can take charge of crisis communications, minimize negative blowback, and even build goodwill during some dark hours.
Have a plan
The most common mistake that small businesses make when it comes to crisis communications is not having a plan in place that can be implemented when the crisis hits.
"The plan can be as simple as having the contact information for your attorney, your local insurance person, your local authorities, your vendors, or any regulatory agencies," says Vera Dordick, principal at Tangible Development, a New York-based firm that trains companies on how to do business and communicate with people from other cultures.
Another part of your plan should designate someone to speak for your business and determine what your message will be. Ideally, the same person should deal with the media throughout the crisis, and the message should be clear and cohesive. "It's going to be hectic with a lot of things happening. When you do a media interview, you can usually make two or three points if you're lucky," Dordick says. "What's your one key message that you want to get out?" If your spokesperson isn't used to dealing with the media or giving interviews, practicing periodically before a crisis arrives can reduce anxiety levels.
Since social media has become a go-to source for information, setting up a separate hashtag—the familiar "#" symbol—about a particular crisis lets you group all your communications and public comments in one place. "If you have a hashtag, it's an easy way to follow what's going on up to the minute," Dordick says.
It's important to acknowledge comments that your customers make to show that you're listening and that you respect their feedback. Positive comments can be treated with a genuine expression of thanks. When faced with a negative comment or review, however, strive to respond in a positive way. "At least acknowledge their comments and don't be defensive," Dordick explains. "Like it or not, whether the customer is right or wrong, the customer is right. You can't get around that."
External events that capture the attention of the nation may still require some kind of response from your business, even though your business was not directly affected or implicated.
"Part of being a community member is that external reality does affect you," says Karen Swim, president of Words For Hire, a Michigan-based firm that develops strategic offline and online communications. "This is why part of your crisis communications plan needs to be proactive. Part of that is listening."
If your business has a Facebook page, then monitoring what your community members are saying is essential. For example, if they are consumed with an issue that has gripped the nation, it might be wise to offer conciliatory thoughts—and hold off on any announcements related to your business.
"Your community will tell you what they want from you," Swim says. "It may be time to go dark on your scheduled posts and to just wait until the community is once again ready to engage in normal conversation."
Your communications during a crisis should always be honest and sincere, and the tone should reflect the nature of your firm, Swim says. For example, a firm whose communications are typically serious and straightforward in tone should couch their comments about the crisis in the same manner.
It's a good idea to have some sort of checklist of all the places where you produce content. "When you need to go in and mute your posts, it's critical to have a list that's accessible to other people in your company," Swim says. For instance, an application like Buffer lets your company put a hold on the distribution of your social media content in a single step.
Assess your risks regularly
"A lot of small businesses don't realize that customers view a business as something in which they have shared ownership," says Deborah Fiorito, president of Texas-based 20K Group, a firm that specializes in public relations, crisis and issues management, and training. "Therefore, businesses have a responsibility to maintain their relationship and their reputations because that's shared with their customers."
Fiorito says that businesses should do a risk assessment of their operations at least four times a year. "Bring together key managers on your team to brainstorm the risks today, what happened in recent weeks, how they reacted to it, what their response was, what they could have done better, and record these assessments," Fiorito says. "Have a plan and a process for a crisis that is so rote, you don't have to stop and think about it."
It may be impossible to prevent a crisis, but a thoughtful, well-executed plan can position your small business as steady, proactive, and sensitive to the events unfolding around you.