Defuse a crisis in 9 steps

Bad reviews, leaked information or faulty products don’t have to turn into reputation-ruining crises. Stop threatening situations in their tracks by following these steps.

Warren Buffett famously said, “If you lose money for the firm, I will be understanding. If you lose reputation, I will be ruthless.”

Today, reputation management is only as good as an organization’s search results. If your operations are solid, you have a responsive customer service team, and you run things ethically, the rest will sort itself out.

But you should handle reputation management with the utmost care. You shouldn’t leave it to sort itself out, though that is a good starting point.

Reputation management requires communication. It should be strategic, thoughtful and targeted.

And reputation management always comes down to this: When a bad situation arises, is it an issue or will it become a crisis?

Prevent an issue from becoming a crisis

When you face an issue that could turn into a crisis, remember that often it’s not the story that matters, but who tells it first.

Download this free white paper to learn how Emory University Hospital managed the Ebola crisis and health care message.

When you tell your story, you have the best opportunity to stay in front of the issue. Take the punch to the nose. Your nose may break, but it will heal.

1. Act swiftly. You might think you’ll never have to worry about reputation management, but social media creates an environment where you have to be on your toes all day, every day.

An employee could say something racist online. A customer could spread lies about you through his Facebook page. A competitor might engage in a whisper campaign against you. The only way to win the game is to be prepared, have a communications expert on your team (or on speed dial) and act swiftly.

2. Address the problem. It’s not fun to say you screwed up or that something bad happened. But when you address the problem head-on, you have the opportunity to tell the story from your perspective, say you’re sorry and provide solutions.

3. Communicate the story. A story gets out of control when you haven’t told your side and people speculate. This is extremely damaging to your brand and creates a reputation emergency. While you can’t control a story, you can provide the facts, information and access to executives that allow journalists and bloggers to help you frame it in the right way.

4. Use the right platform. A few years ago, rogue Dominos employees posted a nasty video on YouTube. So, the company went to YouTube to diffuse the bomb.

The CEO recorded a video and posted it on YouTube so it would come up in searches when people looked for the original employee video. Of course, Dominos shared the CEO video through other social networks and embedded it on the company’s website, but the video lives on YouTube.

If the story is unfolding on Facebook, use Facebook to tell your side. If the story is in traditional media, that’s where you’ll focus your energy.

5. Hire a crisis communications expert. Don’t hire someone who knows how to use social media or works for a company that experienced an issue or crisis. Hire someone who has deep and intense experience in managing issues or crises. These people typically work in PR firms and specialize in crisis communication or reputation management.

If you can’t afford a communications expert, become friends with someone who can help you think through issues when they arise. Put them on your advisory board. If you have a paid board, add them there.

6. Think before you act. Yes, things happen in real-time. Yes, we live in a 24/7/365 world. Yes, it’s fast-paced and you have to act quickly. But you’re not excused from thinking.

An issue or crisis is emotional. You will feel defensive. If it will make you feel better, write down what you really want to say and delete it. (Please delete it, or it will eventually land in the wrong hands!)

Sometimes all you need is someone to vent to. Then you can communicate rationally and without emotion.

7. Empower your team. Lululemon is an athletic clothing store. Early in 2013, people discovered that some of the women’s yoga pants were see-through. This created an expensive situation for the company. Lululemon had to recall the pants and offer refunds.

Not only did the brand have some fun with the issue-a Vancouver store had a sign in its window that read, “We aim to be transparent”-but it empowered its teams to do what they thought was best for each customer. Because of this, the story fanned out fairly quickly and became a case study in how to correctly manage an issue.

Let your team help. Set expectations and boundaries, and give them the tools and resources they need to succeed.

8. Say you’re sorry. Of course, you have to mean it. And you can’t accompany it with “but.” When you practice saying “I’m sorry” in your everyday communications, it becomes easier to say it—and mean it—when an issue develops. It’s critical to reputation management.

9. Back down when you’re wrong. If you hold a position on something and someone points out a double standard or hypocrisy, reassess your policy (see: Applebee’s).

A reputation management exercise

This exercise is a great starting place:

1. Conduct an online audit. You likely already know what people are saying about you online, but it doesn’t hurt to do a Google search to see what people are talking about and where your organization lands in search results.

Search Google, Bing and Yahoo. Search the social networks, review sites, the Better Business Bureau and Ripoff Report. Search employee sites like Glassdoor. Use terms such as, “I hate COMPANY NAME” or “COMPANY NAME sucks.”

2. Search individuals. Do searches on key employees or executives at your organization. Look at sites like Spokeo that aggregate content from all over the Web—including personal information, like a home address—to determine what’s out there that you may not like. Watch not only the organization, but your name and those of your key employees. Revisit monthly.

3. Create a strategy. Based on what you learn from the audit and what internal and external implementation resources are in place, put together the organization’s online strategy-and make sure it’s tied to your goals.

The first thing you should do (if you haven’t already) is set up alerts to let you know when someone says something about you online, whether it’s positive, neutral or negative.

4. Create a clean-up list. With the audit complete and your online strategy in place, you can begin the clean-up.

In some cases, there will be multiple social media accounts for your organization. You might have profiles on social networks that are either defunct or don’t help your strategy. There might be negative reviews or blog posts on the first page of search results that you don’t want to appear before your site and positive reviews. Maybe there are “I hate COMPANY NAME” groups on Facebook or untrue reviews on Yelp or TripAdvisor. Perhaps former employees said terrible things about you on Glassdoor, or set up social networks for the organization and didn’t give you the login information.

Begin your list with these types of things. Write down everything you need to clean up.

5. Assign a person or a team to do the work. The person will need usernames and passwords, branding guidelines, sign-off on copy/images and the power to make changes without a laborious approval process. Assign certain people to handle complaints, delete unnecessary social networks or get missing log-in information. Assign others to begin a list of content you’ll need to create.

6. Begin the clean-up. Some of this will be painful, because you’ll need to work with the social networks’ customer service departments to reset log-in data, delete profiles or take down untrue reviews. This could take weeks, but it’s worth it.

7. Remember that content is king—or at least prince. Many of you will have negative reviews that are, unfortunately, true. There are many organizations who claim they will clean up your online reputation for $40 per month, deleting all the negative reviews from search results.

Don’t fall for that. It’s impossible to delete things on a site unless you have administrator rights. Sure, you can hire someone and take your chances; it’s certainly cheaper than hiring a communications professional. But remember: You always get what you pay for. This is where it pays to spend the money.

8. Implement the strategy. Once you’ve cleaned up the organization’s online presence and determined how you’ll use content to build a strong reputation, it’s time to put your strategy into action. You’re about to become transparent, which is scary for most business leaders. Allow employees to talk about your products or services publicly. Establish a one-to-one communication channel where customers can engage and converse with you in real time every day. Proactively ask for feedback. And don’t hide criticism: Address it publicly.

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. A version of this article originally appeared on Spin Sucks.

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