In April 2015, Texas-based Blue Bell Creamery pulls all of its ice cream from shelves nationwide. The drastic move came after a listeria outbreak that resulted in the deaths of three people. The company was in crisis! People were dead. Hundreds more were laid off or furloughed. And every major news outlet across the nation was covering the story. That type of negative publicity and loss in revenue would typically destroy a company, but today, one year later you can still get your favorite flavors in the frozen food aisle. In fact, when Blue Bell rolled it’s product back out, esteemed reporters were taking selfies with their ice cream and posting them on social media, and stores had to limit the quantities of Blue Bell that customers could buy to prevent selling out too quickly. Finally, the negative stories were taking a positive spin. America’s favorite ice cream brand was back!
How did this happen? I would argue that a strong crisis communications plan kept Blue Bell afloat.
Although your company may never have a crisis as big or as deadly as a listeria outbreak, even smaller issues can portray your company in a negative light. How those issues get resolved and how much damage is done to your image is up to you.
That’s why companies should be prepared in the event of a crisis. They should have a plan in place that they hope to never use. What should that plan entail?
- Communicate with insiders: Your company’s employees, shareholders, board of directors, volunteers and anyone else directly involved with your company should be made aware of the crisis first. They should always hear the news from you, not the media.
- Designate a media spokesperson: Who will address the media in a crisis? Will it be the president or CEO of the company? Will it be the public relations manager? Will it be a representative from a PR firm hired specifically to help handle the crisis? Immediately after a crisis, designate a media spokesperson and make sure everyone in the company knows whom to contact in a crisis. The last thing you want is employees or board members speaking to the press without having all the facts.
- Practice crisis drills: What is the absolute worst thing that could happen at your workplace? An office shooting? An accidental injury or death? Practice your crisis plan routinely the same why students in schools practice for a disaster. Establish your communications center, media control center, and a meeting place for personnel and families. Practice makes perfect. If you and your staff have done a run-through, everyone will be better prepared in the event of a real crisis.
- Prepare for backlash: It’s a crisis, not a feature story. There will be unflattering coverage. There will be Prepare for it. If you’re prepared, hopefully, you can limit the amount of negative publicity and prevent as much damage as possible.
- Be honest: Even if your company screwed up, don’t lie. Don’t sweep the facts under the carpet. Don’t give half-truths. Instead, be upfront, be honest, be quick to respond and address the crisis, but be brief with your words until you have all the information. When addressing the media, let them know in advance when your next update will occur, so they do not seek out other sources for information. Stick to the facts and only speak to what you know!
- Show empathy but keep it together: We’ve all seen the press conferences where a senior official of some company in crisis stands up at a podium, reads a statement with absolutely no emotion and steps down. Don’t do that! In a crisis, it is best to show empathy. Your employees, shareholders, and the general public will relate and respect you more, if they feel authentic empathy from your spokesperson. With that said, it’s a delicate balance. You want to come across sincere, but you don’t want to be an emotional mess. Keep it together.
- Monitor social media – Immediately after you’ve notified internal personnel of the crisis, get out in front of it, and put a statement up on social media. Then continue to monitor all social media outlets and respond, when appropriate, to those who are voicing their grievances on social media. Airlines do a wonderful job at this, and it works in their favor. Blue Bell Creameries was not active on social media when the listeria outbreak occurred, but soon after, the company became very active, even creating a Twitter account with the handle @ilovebluebell. This is genius in my opinion, because even those airing their grievances directly to Blue Bell on Twitter had to actually type “I Love Blue Bell”.
- Assess your plan: Finally, after the crisis is over, assess your plan, make improvements and capitalize on any future public relations opportunities.
A crisis is never fun, but it doesn’t have to be catastrophic. A little preparation and successful communication can keep a crisis from becoming even bigger.
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