"You can turn a crisis into an opportunity if you're upfront, credible and put your customer first," advised CFM President Gary Conkling in an article in The Sunday Oregonian spurred by an outbreak of norovirus at a popular Portland restaurant.
Conkling, who leads CFM's public relations practice, was cited as a crisis communications expert in the story by Oregonian reporter Michael Russell. Conkling teaches strategic communications, which includes training on crisis response and reputation management, at Willamette University's Atkinson Graduate School of Management.
"There's plenty of evidence," Conkling says, "that people will forgive a misstep." "They're less forgiving," he adds, "when people don't own it or deal with it straight."
Russell's article explored the steps Andina, a Peruvian restaurant in the Pearl District, needs to undertake to preserve its reputation after two recent outbreaks of norovirus, the last one of which sickened at least 30 patrons.
"Food poisoning — particularly norovirus — is the live bullet in the restaurant version of Russian roulette," Russell wrote, noting the Centers of Disease Control estimate 21 million Americans are affected annually, with 70,000 requiring hospitalization.
In the story, Conkling advised that all businesses should develop crisis response plans for worst-case scenarios. "I teach my students that a general crisis plan is of little use," he explained. "Plans need to be drawn specifically around the types of high-probability risks your business faces. For restaurants, that means food security issues."
Even with good planning, when a crisis erupts, everything becomes chaotic, Conkling says. "You don't have control."
Priorities are getting the facts, resolving what caused the crisis and communicating proactively, Conkling says. "You need to be forthcoming. You can't pretend it didn't happen or that maybe you didn't know about it. Being proactive in communication is about confidence-building. If your actions match what you say, that's what people will remember."
CFM provides crisis response and reputation management services to a wide range of corporate, nonprofit and public organizations.