You receive a text message from a colleague that says: “HEADS UP, I think we’re involved in that ugly thing breaking in the news.” What do you do?

Well, after a quick combination curse/prayer, you tell your colleague to call with details. This is essential for two reasons.

First, you need to find out what is known and unknown. What is going on? How are we involved? Has anyone been hurt physically, emotionally or financially? What have we already said or done?  Anything bad or dumb?

And second, a big question: Is the media likely to be interested? If anyone could be hurt in any way by that ugly thing, the answer will be yes.

Tech companies face real risks with products and services that have already launched or are just entering the marketplace.

Think about Apple’s response when the FBI said it would like to unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. Apple knew immediately it was in a no-win position, but had to choose a direction quickly and stick to it.

So what can you do to be ready, before you get that text? The rules for how to manage a crisis are pretty simple, but the potential variations and complexities are infinite. Here are the basics:

  1. Scan. Which risks are most probable in your business? And which ones are less probable but potentially catastrophic? How are you monitoring and managing them?
  2. Prepare. What crisis management steps do you need to take in case your toast falls buttered side down, as one of my old bosses used to say? What is your protocol if something awful and unexpected happens? Who is in charge? Who is your spokesperson? What are your resources? Who are your allies and supporters?
  3. Train. For a small startup, the training might be a short desktop exercise where you put a scenario on the whiteboard and walk through who would do what. For a larger enterprise, more formal training and exercises could be appropriate. The basic principles for crisis communication are brutally and relentlessly simple. Never say “no comment.” The worst line in any news story is “Party x was asked to respond but refused to comment.” Nothing screams guilt like refusal to comment. And when you do communicate, answer these questions: What do we know, what are we doing and how do we feel? If you go farther than that, you’re speculating, and unless you’re Goldman Sachs, speculating is probably a bad idea.
  4. Watch and Listen. Crises large and small unfold constantly in every industry and every geography. Watch and learn what you can do differently or better than the people who are having their unwanted moment in the spotlight. Make crisis preparedness a topic for discussion with your team and your board.

Crisis management can never be a competitive advantage (unless your product or service helps companies manage or avoid a crisis). It’s a crisis for crying out loud, so upside is rare. But you can prevent it from becoming a competitive disadvantage and running the risk of a public flaying of your corporate reputation.

Think about the difference between the legendary Tylenol poisoning crisis of the early 1980s and the Lac-Mégantic rail catastrophe of 2013. In the first case, seven people were killed after ingesting cyanide-laced Tylenol. The company responded so well that many of you will be thinking – what Tylenol crisis? That’s evidence of great crisis management.

Lac-Mégantic, not so much. It was not only more recent and tragic, but it was handled brutally by the company involved and its executives. But then, they probably thought they were too small to fret about something as arcane and improbable as “crisis management.”

How about you?

In Position is a monthly column focusing on communications, public relations and government relations for tech companies. It is produced for Communitech News by the Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Toronto.
Photo: Help! by GotCredit is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

About The Author

Greg Wilkinson
Principal, Earnscliffe Strategy Group

Greg is a Principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and has over 30 years of experience in communications, marketing and advocacy in both Canada and the U.S. Greg has had a diverse career, serving as a VP in a large multinational firm and in senior leadership roles for trade and industry associations. He is active with the Toronto Community Foundation and is a frequent facilitator of strategy development for businesses, associations and not-for-profits.