3 key lessons in crisis management

Protect your company's brand, reputation and book of business

In the summer of 2008, Maple Leaf Foods faced a serious crisis when meat processed at a Toronto plant was contaminated with listeria. Dozens of people became ill and at least 15 deaths were linked directly to the tainted meat. It was a blow to the company’s reputation, brand and share price – yet many experts say the way Maple Leaf Foods handled the situation was a textbook example of how to manage media relations during a crisis.

Issues like this can occur unexpectedly and at any time. Here are some tips on how to deal with a crisis in order to protect your company’s brand, reputation, and book of business.

1) Decide who speaks for your company

Sincerity, by definition, can’t be faked so one of the first steps companies need to take when preparing their media response to a crisis is to choose a spokesperson carefully.

“You don’t want some cold, corporate, starched type up there in a shirt and tie with a somber suit, reading from a script,” says James Gregory, regional director, AON Crisis Management. “They need to come across as genuine and really meaningfully concerned with what’s happening and how the company is going to respond to make sure that consumers of their product are protected.”

John Larsen, principal at Calgary-based Corpen Group Inc. says a public relations person can be an effective spokesperson in situations where a company is simply communicating facts such as evacuation details. However, where there has been loss of life or significant loss of property, someone at an executive level – likely the president or CEO – is more appropriate.

2) “No comment” is never the right answer

When the media come calling, Nicole Harris, media communications coach at Winnipeg-based Maverick Media, says the worst thing a company can do is “turtle” or refuse to comment. While you may not have all the answers right away, “you need to express empathy and concern, you need to show me that you are taking the matter seriously, and you need to be a fact-finder,” she says.

3) Always have a plan

Harris says it can be dangerous to assume the worst will never happen. “At some point and some time, no matter how well prepared or safety trained an organization is, something will happen or could happen, and in those times of emergency and crisis you need to be 10 steps ahead of the media, not 10 minutes behind,” she says.

A crisis communications team may include the president or CEO who serves as the ultimate operational authority, a crisis management team leader who coordinates the company’s response, a human resources officer who can work with affected employees and families, the risk manager and legal counsel, Harris suggests. Depending on the company, other areas may need to be represented too.

This article is an abbreviated version of one that appeared in Canadian Insurance Risk Manager Summer 2011. To read the full article, click here.

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