It’s not unusual for an organizational crisis to grow and become consuming, especially when there’s not an effective crisis plan in place to deal with the situation. Not only can a crisis severely damage a firm’s image, but it also can impede its ability to function because so many valuable resources get diverted to deal with the problem.
In a post earlier this year, I discussed the importance of engaging a crisis in its early stages, where it usually is more manageable and less damaging. Properly managing a crisis is vital, because facts alone don’t win in the court of public opinion—perceptions do.
It’s not unusual for the negative publicity and intense scrutiny from the outside that often occurs during a crisis to be accompanied by panic as events spiral out of the organization’s control, along with growing concern about what might happen next. This can easily lead to a siege mentality and short-term focus, which only makes the situation worse.
One of the most important things a public relations advisor can do during a crisis is to help senior managers maintain a long-term perspective so that they don’t say or do things they’ll later regret.
Patience, not panic, will help an organization finish well in a crisis.
But what if you could identify and deal with a “smoldering” crisis—meaning that a potentially damaging condition is known to one or more individuals—before it ignites into a full-blown crisis situation? Actually, more times than not, it is possible to do so.
That’s because most crises start out as issues simmering on the backburner that could have been anticipated and minimized—or headed off altogether—had appropriate action been taken in the early stages.
Issues management proactively addresses a problem before it gets out of hand and wreaks havoc. Some of my best PR successes are those that never saw the light of day—they had potential to turn into a crisis but were averted by dealing with them in the smoldering stage.
Such PR “saves” don’t show up in the “stats sheet,” but they can save a client or employer millions of dollars in bad publicity and untold damage to a brand.
Sometimes, they can open the door to new opportunities and revenue for a company.
A number of years ago one of my clients—a regional energy company in the northeast called Agway Energy Products—was facing a smoldering issue, as was its competitors. High energy prices had been one of the most significant events in the news the previous winter, with the wholesale cost of natural gas having risen more than 400% in the past year.
Through a series of carefully timed news releases and media contacts, we were able to turn the negative issue of rising energy costs into a positive story for consumers by (1) explaining why these costs were rising so dramatically and (2) providing tips on ways to save on their energy bills without making great sacrifices to their comfort.
By taking the initiative to address this issue head-on, the company gained credibility and goodwill—and, likely lots of new customers. In just eight months we generated more than 200 interviews, appearances and information sessions with print, TV and radio media.
Commenting on the PR campaign, the company’s spokesman wrote, “In almost every instance, we were able to turn any negative angle around to a positive story which would help consumers find ways to increase the efficiency of their energy equipment, reduce the amount of energy they used, and focus on how they could increase their comfort by expanding their relationship with Agway.”
If something is smoldering at your company, deal with it now. You’ll not only help keep the situation from getting worse, but you may also find there’s an opportunity to turn a potentially negative issue into something positive.