How you deal with a crisis speaks volumes about your business.

Businesses hit bumps in the road. But it’s how a business deals with those bumps that sets it apart. Deal with it well, and the crisis is a speed bump. It gives you a bit of a jolt, but you get over it and move on. Deal with it poorly and it can be a major detour or a complete highway shut down that puts you out of business.

Crisis media management is something I have specialized in for more than 16 years. My background in my previous career as an investigative reporter gives me a unique perspective in helping clients think about the kinds of crisis situations they might face and how to deal with them if they should arise. Good crisis communications is based on being prepared and planning ahead. No, you can’t plan or prepare for every crisis. But you can at least prepare for ones you know are more likely to effect you and/or your industry.

We’re seeing more stories in the news that require crisis media management than ever before: Enron, AIG…the list goes on. Frankly, when my firm gets calls like this, I turn these types of companies away. It’s not that we couldn’t help these types of companies or the task is too challenging. It’s that morally, I don’t want to help them. One of the best things about being the boss is that I have the luxury to pick and choose who I work with. And I have always chosen to work with clients of high integrity who choose good decisions over greed. I work with clients who work hard to earn their money and success…not get it dishonestly and at the expense of others.

With that said, even companies who operate with the highest of ethical standards face adversity that attracts media attention. How those companies respond to the media and perform under pressure says a lot about the company and its leadership.

Let me give you an example of a crisis media situation that one of our clients faced a number of years ago, and this situation is becoming more common these days. The situation was an impending bankruptcy.

I got a call from this client one afternoon saying they were trying to sell the restaurant franchise, but if the sale fell through, they would have to file for Chapter 11. The president told me he wanted me to be aware of this before anything happened so that I could help him plan for the best and worst case scenarios. That was his first really wise move. Being proactive and planning ahead for a crisis is the best strategy if you know something could be coming down the road.

I told my client that being proactive if they filed for Chapter 11 was the best strategy vs. letting the media find the court filing in their daily court rounds and being bombarded by media calls. I told him that we should alert the media that the filing was happening (if it did indeed happen) and tell them that the company’s president would be available for interviews to answer any of their questions. My client agreed that was the best course of action.

Our next step was to create the news release and talking points for our client. There were several key points we wanted to make sure reporters and their audiences understood. First, this was a Chapter 11 (a reorganization) and not a Chapter 7 (closing/liquidation). Second, that the restaurants would be open for business as usual other than a couple locations that would close later that month. Third, employees jobs were safe and so were their 401k plans. Any employee who worked at a location that was being closed would be relocated to a nearby location. Last, but not least, the company intended to pay back every penny it owed and hoped to do so in about a year and was asking vendors to be patient and stick by the company as they reorganized.

When the client realized there would be no sale and they would have to file for bankruptcy, we sent out the news release and told reporters to call me to schedule an interview with the president of the company. I think reporters truly appreciated our proactive, open and honest communication. They called and every media outlet who requested access was given an interview so they could have the story before their deadlines.

The strategy worked well and became the national strategy for this type of situation within this restaurant chain. While the news of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy is never good news, the coverage was fair and let the public know the restaurants would remain open. One reporter asked our client, “What does this mean for your restaurants tomorrow?” Our client responded (and this quote was used in one newspaper story), “We’ll be making pancakes as usual in the morning. We hope you’ll join us.”

The final chapter on this situation was that creditors did stand by the restaurant, the restaurant did come out of Chapter 11 successfully, paid back creditors and was later purchased. It continues to operate and thrive today.

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