Time to Dust Off and Update Your Crisis Plan

If your organization has a crisis communications plan, this is a good time to review and update it. If you don’t have a crisis plan, don’t wait to start preparing one because crises have a bad habit of occurring when you least expect them.

If your organization has a crisis communications plan, this is a good time to review and update it. If you don’t have a crisis plan, don’t wait to start preparing one because crises have a bad habit of occurring when you least expect them.

The start of a new year is a perfect moment to dust off your crisis communications plan – or get busy preparing one.

The essence of a crisis communications plan is to anticipate the unexpected. When a crisis occurs, your ability to control events will go out the window. Your time frame for responding will shrivel. Your judgment will be tested.

One of the most underrated benefits of a crisis communications plan exercise is to identify vulnerabilities that you can eliminate or at least mitigate through proactive steps.

Here are our tips on reviewing your crisis communications plan:

  • Check your contact lists to update current phone numbers and email addresses and add or subtract people.
  • Review your potential crisis scenarios to see if any modifications are needed or new scenarios added because of an emerging vulnerability.
  • Don’t overlook competitive threats as the source of a potential crisis.
  • Ensure designated crisis team leaders, spokespersons and go-to fact-finders are still in place and prepared.
  • Consider a crisis drill to test your organization’s preparedness and revive awareness of the need for a crisis plan.
  • Suggest spokespersons undergo a media training refresher course – or receive media training – to sharpen their key message delivery skills under pressure.
  • Double-check your media monitoring key words and assess whether you are listening in all the right places.
  • Freshen or enhance the content stored away on your ghost website.
  • Search your Twitter followers to ensure you have the media and community contacts you would need in the event of a crisis.

For organizations without a crisis communications plan, our best advice is to put one in place as quickly as you can. Get professional help if possible, but don’t procrastinate. Crises have a bad habit of happening without warning and when you least expect them.

Useful crisis plans start with a candid assessment – what we call an issue audit – of all of the potential vulnerabilities facing an organization. Think about what could happen, what might trigger it and how it might affect your organization. That explanation will be the basis for a crisis scenario.

The next step in crisis plan development is to assess the probability and consequence of various scenarios. A crisis scenario that is highly likely to occur and could pose devastating consequences deserves more attention than an unlikely crisis with inconsequential impact.

The crisis plan is built around those higher probability-consequential crisis scenarios. The plan will have elements that apply to all or most scenarios, such as a crisis team leader, an identified situation room and a rapid decision-making crisis team. Each scenario will identify elements that apply specifically to that crisis such as the go-to fact-finder, background information and community contacts.

A crisis involving financial misconduct should trigger different internal resources and external contacts than an environmental spill that threatens a nearby water source or residential neighborhood.

Grabbing a crisis plan template off the internet can give you a picture of how to structure your crisis plan, but don’t use it as basis framework of your plan because it is too generic and lacks the specificity of real scenarios.

We advise skipping the wordsmithing exercise of holding statements. Unless you are clairvoyant, you won’t know exactly how or where a crisis will break. Anything you could dream up to say in advance will probably be off point or so general as to be useless when an actual crisis occurs. A better approach is get your ducks in a row on how you will field calls, how quickly you can get the facts on what happened and get timely management sign-off on how to address the crisis.

In a crisis, actions speak louder than words. A crisis plan should be built on how to respond, not just on what to say.

One final bit of advice. The guiding star for any crisis plan should be an organization’s mission and values. If you say you put customers or patients first, then let that pledge inform and guide your actions. Protecting your reputation in a crisis depends on the actions you take that reflect the reputation you want to maintain.

‘Over-Exaggerating’ the Truth

Disgraced U.S. Olympian swimmer Ryan Lochte lost three endorsements, standing as a stark example that reputations take years to earn can be tarnished in an instant, especially when you lie about being robbed at gunpoint.

Disgraced U.S. Olympian swimmer Ryan Lochte lost three endorsements, standing as a stark example that reputations take years to earn can be tarnished in an instant, especially when you lie about being robbed at gunpoint.

Need a case example of how lying can cost you dearly? Look no further than Olympic gold medal swimmer Ryan Lochte whose fabricated story about an armed robbery in Rio led to the loss of four prime endorsements by Speedo, Ralph Lauren, skin care firm Syneron-Candela and Japanese mattress maker airweave.

Lochte reportedly earned $2.3 million annually from his Olympic swimming sponsorships leading up to the 2012 Olympics in London, according to The Washington Post. One expert estimates Lochte's lifetime lost earnings from the four dropped sponsorships could be as much as $20 million.

In an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, Lochte took responsibility for the incident involving three other U.S. Olympians following a night of reverie that took a pit stop at a Rio gas station. Lochte admitted he was intoxicated and damaged a bathroom door. He was less definitive about other damage in the bathroom.

Lochte, who returned his hair to its normal shade of brown, also admitted “over-exaggerating” his encounter with a security guard who pulled his gun and pointed it at him. Lochte initially said he and his fellow swimmers were yanked from a cab and robbed at gunpoint. Now, he says, the guard confronted them after hearing loud noises in the bathroom and drew his weapon after Lochte acted aggressively. Lochte claims he was still drunk when he spun his robbery story.

While Lochte managed an apology to Brazil for not telling the truth, Brazilian authorities and news media are understandably not satisfied. Lochte’s untruthful tale touched a nerve in a country highly sensitive about its chronic crime rate. They correctly note Lochte only confessed to lying after surveillance camera video showed what really happened – or didn’t happen.

Intermixed in his apology, Lochte said some of the right things. But probably not enough of them. For one, he failed to say how it would make the situation right. That would require more than paying to repair the damage. It might take an act of attrition or a contribution to a cause dear to the heart of Brazilians. (Speedo said the company is donating $50,000 of Lochte’s fee to Save the Children, which will direct the money to add Brazilian children.}

Ralph Lauren removed Lochte's image from its website congratulating U.S. Olympians it sponsored. The company said Lochte’s deal was for the 2016 Olympics and wouldn’t be renewed.

The U.S. Olympic Committee has warned that punishments may lie ahead for Lochte.

At age 32, Lochte’s Olympic career is probably over anyway. His actions, which he described as “immature,” have put a serious dent in his reputation as well as his pocketbook. In the trade, he would be called “damaged goods.” Self-inflicted damaged goods.

Lochte may recover his reputation, and we sincerely hope he does take steps to do that. But his actions and prevarications are a stark reminder that reputation matters – and take only a few seconds to blow up.

Actions Speak Louder Than Reputations

When your actions, reputation and reality don’t align, you are courting trouble. Actions guided by values speak louder than reputations based on puffery and promises.

When your actions, reputation and reality don’t align, you are courting trouble. Actions guided by values speak louder than reputations based on puffery and promises.

Your reputation should shadow your reality, not precede it. When reputation gets out in front of reality, you are courting scrutiny to see whether the two match up – and scorn when they don’t.

Remember, actions speak louder than reputations. Actions guided by solid values enhance reputations.

It is all about the difference of earning a reputation versus projecting a reputation. There are tangible dimensions to an earned reputation as opposed to the airy lightness of a projected reputation.

A useful exercise is to measure the gap between your reputation and your reality. This gap analysis can affirm an earned reputation or expose a hot-air projected reputation. If the perceived gap between reputation and reality is significant, you have a credibility problem.

“Effectively managing reputational risk begins with recognizing that reputation is a matter of perception,” according to a Harvard Business Review article. “When the reputation of a company is more positive than its underlying reality, this gap poses a substantial risk. Eventually, the failure of a firm to live up to its billing will be revealed and its reputation will decline until it more closely matches the reality.”

“To bridge reputation-reality gaps, a company must either improve its ability to meet expectations or reduce expectations by promising less,” the HBR article continues. Some companies panic and resort to financial tricks, sleight of hand or outright fraud to mask the gap, which can result in an even greater fall. Think Enron.

Because your reputation is your most valuable asset, managing your reputation should be a top priority. Reputation management should be based on actions, not promises. Actions to build or defend your reputation should center on actions that align with your core values and who you want to be.

When clients ask me about how to respond to a crisis situation, I advise to start by thinking about the organization's core values and let them be the guide for action. If you say your customers come first, then act like it when responding a crisis that may put customers at risk. If you say you want to be a good neighbor, then act like a good neighbor.

A brand promise – such as healthy, locally sourced fresh food – is only as good as the actions to fulfill that promise. Chipotle discovered the hard way that a brand promise rings hollow unless you ensure that locally sourced fresh food is also healthy food.

One of the best ways to earn a reputation is by solving other people’s problems. Another reputation-burnishing effort is to undertake steps that eliminate problems down the road, as Tillamook Cheese did when it chose to eliminate use the growth hormone rBst in its dairy herds.

The 2016 presidential election has highlighted reputations and realities that are out of sync. Jeb Bush was deemed the GOP frontrunner before winning a single primary. He raised millions of dollars in campaign contributions on the basis of his reputation, but when the voting started, his reputation imploded. He became the proverbial hollow suit.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has campaigned as highly competent, but she has been tagged for her handling of classified emails on her private server as extremely careless. GOP nominee Donald Trump touts himself as a winning businessman despite a record of bankruptcies, failures and a continuing lawsuit alleging fraud by Trump University. Not surprisingly, a majority of voters view both Clinton and Trump as either untrustworthy or unfit.

The 2016 Olympics in Rio offer some sterling examples of men and women who have paid the price and earned their glory in the pool, on the track and in other venues. Some Olympic stars have to live up to their reputations, while most Olympians earn their own reputations based on their performance. Some win medals. Others compete and never get to the award podium. Still others are indelibly imprinted on our memories because of their actions.

In an instant after their legs tangled, they fell to the track and helped each other up, Abbey D'Agostino of the United States and Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand earned a reputation as true Olympians. (Photo Credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

In an instant after their legs tangled, they fell to the track and helped each other up, Abbey D'Agostino of the United States and Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand earned a reputation as true Olympians. (Photo Credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Abbey D’Agostino, a 24-year-old Dartmouth graduate, and New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin were total strangers before running the 5,000-meter race in Rio. Twenty minutes into the race, their legs crossed and both fell to the track. Instead of worrying about their medal chances, the two women helped each other to their feet and hobbled to complete the race, finishing far behind other competitors. In an instant, they showed their true mettle by reflecting the traditional Olympic spirit of good sportsmanship.

Two days earlier, in the men’s 10,000-meter race, Mo Farah fell after his feet and got tangled with Galen Rupp’s. Perhaps sacrificing his own medal chances, Rupp slowed down to be sure Farah, his friend and long-time training partner, was okay. Farah gave him a thumbs up and went on to win his second consecutive Olympic gold medal in the event. Rupp put his values and his actions ahead of his reputation, and by doing so he ended up enhancing his reputation.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.

Ethics and Crisis

A crisis can test your ethics. An ethical crisis response can turn a mess into a reputation triumph.

A crisis can test your ethics. An ethical crisis response can turn a mess into a reputation triumph.

A crisis is an unwelcome way to prove your mettle and test your ethics.

The chaos of crisis will challenge your calm, creating an opportunity to perform under pressure amid events out of your control. But crisis also will tempt you to cut corners, blame scapegoats and bend the truth. Your core values may take a backseat to expediency. Your ethics is one of the best tools to carry around in a crisis. 

Acting ethically in crisis, while hard, is the right thing to do. Ethical behavior is the path to a burnished reputation.

Johnson & Johnson's handling of the tainted Tylenol incident is the perfect example of a crisis response based on values. James E. Burke, CEO of J&J, challenged all his employees to put "Patients First," the company's brand promise. Pulling Tylenol from shelves, meeting with thousands of care providers and patients and developing the tamper-proof container were the fruits of following that core value.

Your ethics will be on the line when you are called on to stand in front of microphone, admit a mistake and take responsibility for a mess. Your reputation can take a hit if you hide out, shift responsibility and blame others.

People know stuff happens. They tend to judge based on what you do after stuff happens. Sluggish responses, fingerprinting and denial often leads to a cascading drop in credibility.

Here are four tips on how to integrate ethics into your crisis response:

Look in the Mirror
Before doing anything else, take stock of your reputation, your brand promise, what you stand for. Let that be your guide as you lead efforts to clean up a spill, stabilize a faltering operation or condemn a bad practice. Deputize everyone involved in the crisis response to follow the same guideline. Make an enhanced reputation your goal.

Be Proactive
Don't let events beyond your control define your response. Take charge of fixing what's wrong. Find a long-term solution. Communicate with your own employees and those who are impacted. Use tools such as Twitter that allow real-time communications.

Seek Advice
Owning a crisis doesn't mean dealing with it alone. It is a sign of strength, not weakness to seek expert opinions, consult your own employees and ask those caught in the crisis what they think should be done. Be curious and empathetic, not cavalier and impulsive. You may get conflicting advice, but you also will get invaluable suggestions.

See Your Actions in a Newspaper Headline
A simple test to assess your actions is to write the most slanted story and headline to describe them. If the result disturbs you, then reconsider what you do. Pursue actions that are unmistakably sound and reflections of your ethics, actions will are likely to produce headlines you would want your family and friends to read the next day.

Ethical Slips and Spoiled Reputations

Corruption is a slippery slope that can color your reputation. To avoid it requires dutiful attention to what constitutes ethical behavior and giving license to employees to say "No."

Corruption is a slippery slope that can color your reputation. To avoid it requires dutiful attention to what constitutes ethical behavior and giving license to employees to say "No."

The FIFA bribery scandal serves as a stark reminder that corruption is a fact of life. How you respond can color your reputation permanently. Failing to consider what is and isn't ethical can be a reputation spoiler.

The Portland Business Journal reported that one alleged kickback scheme in the FIFA scandal involved a footwear and apparel deal signed by Brazil's national soccer team in 1996. That was the same year Nike signed a major contract with Brazil, which solidified its status as a "major player in the global soccer market."

Nike issued a statement saying none of its employees were aware of or knowingly participated in any bribery or kickback schemes cited in indictments against FIFA officials. The company said it "strongly opposes any form of manipulation or bribery."

A former City of Portland employee is in jail after admitting he took money and free trips worth more than $200,000 to steer parking meter contracts to two businesses.

Corruption can occur when an official has decision-making power on a significant policy or lucrative contract. The corruption can be by the official with the leverage or a company or organization seeking to exploit that leverage.

Corruption is an addictive slippery slope. A small favor here, bending the rules a little there serves as an invitation to ask for bigger favors and more bent rules. It becomes harder to say no. Even if you try to say no, earlier transgressions become reverse leverage that forces you to descend deeper into corruption. It becomes easier to rationalize that a little grease is needed to make the wheel go round.

The stakes for how you respond to a "tempting offer" can be huge. Failure to gain a permit. Loss of a contract. Dissolution of a business relationship. Dismissal from a job. Corruption is serious business.

Whistleblowers risk a lot when they point out misbehavior or unmask cultures of corruption. Many whistleblowers are called snitches and shunned. Some lose their jobs and, incredibly, their reputations. You can understand why many people who see wrongdoing just turn and walk away.

However, there is no excuse for closing your ideas to potential corrosive practices. Taking stock of your own ethical standards and sharing those principles with your team members can erase gray areas or fuzziness in behavior. Letting employees know they won't be punished for behaving ethically, even if it means losing a contract or a policy debate, can have a powerful influence on morale and company culture.

Your assignment may be to manage an issue. But your overall objective should always be to manage your reputation. 

Back to Facts as Facts

Facts should be facts, not means to an end. Separating facts from opinions and advocacy is a step toward credibility.The saying "facts are facts" no longer seems to be widely accepted. For some, facts are merely bits of information, means to an end.

Russian President Vladmir Putin is the leading contemporary practitioner of the Big Lie. He has galvanized Russians against Ukraine by claiming the government in Kiev has been overrun by Russian-hating fascists. When a commercial passenger plane was shot down over the portion of Ukraine patrolled by Russian separatists, Putin speculated Kiev was responsible, not the Russian-supplied anti-aircraft artillery he sent to fight the fascists.

People who bend or spin the facts sometimes seem to get away with it. However, believing people are gullible – at least over the long haul – can be dangerous to your reputation. People have a habit of getting to the bottom of what's going on. The digital age has made it a lot harder to hide the truth – or another point of view.

Getting Off the Front Page, Not Reporter Revenge

A reporter writes a negative story about your company, your boss or you. If getting even is the first thing that comes to mind, take a deep breath, go for a walk and find a better strategy.

Almost anything would be better than revenge. ​

If you think the reporter got key facts wrong or misinterpreted them, call the reporter and chat. Speak plainly. Have some evidence at hand that you can share to substantiate your point. For egregious fact errors, most responsible reporters will agree to a correction. For less significant errors, it may be enough to wise up the reporter so the mistake isn't repeated.

Occasionally a reporter is obstinate and won't acknowledge an error. You can take the next step and talk to his or her editor to press your case.

When to Blow Your Own Whistle

Blowing the whistle on your organization's own misconduct is the right thing to do, but is it also right to tell your customers and stakeholders?Many organizations take a responsible course and blow their own whistle on a mistake or misconduct. But they aren't always sure whether to go public with their self-reported problems.

It is an understandable dilemma. Why rock the boat unnecessarily?

However, the downside of not publicly disclosing mistakes or misconduct can be a serious erosion of trust and long-term damage to a brand or reputation.

There is no clear-cut formula of what is right. Organizations that self-report are doing the right thing. The question is — does the right thing in their circumstances include advising their customers, stakeholders and employees? More often than not, answer is yes.

The risk is too great that the story will break, especially if the misconduct involves criminal acts or matters that will eventually be public — in which case the organization must to deal with the story in a reactive mode. The failure to disclose can be viewed suspiciously, perhaps even as an attempt to cover up unflattering facts.

Public relations professionals with experience in crisis communication can provide invaluable assistance in helping an organization weigh the pros and cons of proactive and reactive media responses. If a PR pro is doing his or her job, the number one objective will be actions that preserve – or enhance – the organization's reputation.

To Be or Not To Be Shakespeare

"We are such stuff as dreams are made on..."The purest treasure mortal times afford is spotless reputation.

         –Richard II

It was a cold, rainy night. I was sitting at my desk sipping my third bourbon when I heard a knock on the door.

A man, a strange man dressed in what I assumed was a costume, slipped in and sat down.

"I've got a problem, a big problem," he said before I could offer a drink or find a clean glass to pour it in. "Do you recognize me?"

"Not really. Are you related to Wayne Newton?"

"Of course not. I'm William Shakespeare."

"I should have guessed. Did I offer you a drink?"

"I suppose you've seen the new movie, Anonymous?”

"No, I avoid the movies. Can't stand the smell of stale popcorn."

"Too bad. Well, in this movie, I appear as a fraud, an impostor, a shill for some rich aristocrat who purportedly wrote all my plays and sonnets. Can you believe that? Some people actually believe this movie is true."

"Actually, I read an article that said a woman from Italy who married an English big-shot actually wrote all your stuff."

Write a Book to Build a Reputation

Presidential candidates write books to generate buzz and build their reputations. You can, too.

Researching and writing a book can seem daunting. It isn't easy, but it isn't impossible either.

Here are four examples from my list of friends and colleagues:

Scott Ferris, who by day is a lobbyist covering a number of western states, has converted his passion for politics into a book about failed presidential candidacies and their lasting legacies. His first book will be published just before the Iowa presidential caucuses next February. He already is at work on book number two.

  • Former Oregon Rep. David Edwards left the legislature, sold his successful research business and started a new career as a film producer by writing an original science fiction screenplay and accompanying novella. Filming on his movie starts this summer in Portland. Edwards is working on a series of small novels, including a prequel to his first film, which he hopes will be a commercial success.
  • James Hoggan, founder and owner of Hoggan & Associates, a Vancouver, B.C., PR firm, is writing his third book, tentatively titled "Duped," which describes how the public relations industry has betrayed public trust. His first two books dealt with PR best practices and the battle for truth in the climate change debate. Hoggan's writings have shifted the focus of his PR firm to what he calls "thought leadership."

Integrity is Imperative, Not Optional

Facebook is red-faced about its failed attempt to use a PR firm to plant stories critical of Google's privacy policies. It should be. The PR firm that took the work from Facebook should be more than embarrassed.

While most finger-pointing is directed at Facebook for violating its own rules of transparency, a lot of blame should be heaped on Burson-Marsteller for agreeing to slink around on Facebook's behalf.

Burson-Marsteller is an excellent PR agency, but apparently the account manager who accepted this assignment forgot the Public Relations Society of America credo that says, "I pledge to conduct myself professionally, with truth, accuracy, fairness and responsibility to the public."

Facebook said it hired Burson-Marsteller to "focus attention on this issue, using publicly available information that could be independently verified by any media organization or analyst." A spokesman for Burson-Marsteller said it approached Christopher Soghoian, an Indiana University graduate student who blogs about online privacy and security issues, asking him to write about how Google's Social Circle collects and uses data about its users.

"The American people must be made aware of the now immediate intrusions into their deeply personal lives Google is cataloging and broadcasting every minute of every day – without their permission," one of the Burson-Marsteller emails said.

Burson-Marsteller didn't disclose the name of its client and Soghoian declined the suggestion. Instead, he blew the whistle, which led Facebook to admit it should have been upfront about what it was doing, as it requires of users on its own social media site.

However, the situation never should have gotten that far. Burson-Marsteller knows the rules and should have pushed back on Facebook, even if it meant not getting the gig. Better to be right than on the wrong side of a publicity backfire.

Facebook faces its own critics on privacy. Burson-Marsteller would have served as better strategic counselors by advising Facebook to deal with its own privacy issues, so it could talk about its improvements, not Google's alleged shortcomings.

In a statement, Burson-Marsteller admitted it erred by accepting the work. "Whatever the rationale, this was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies, and the assignment on those terms should have been declined. When talking to the media, we need to adhere to strict standards of transparency about clients, and this incident underscores the absolute importance of this principle."

Our colleague, Jim Hoggan of Hoggan & Associates in Vancouver, B.C., is writing a new book tentatively titled "Duped" that explores how the PR industry has gotten off track, contributing to deeper public skepticism. Hoggan, whose first book is titled, "Do the Right Thing," believes PR professionals need to rediscover their compass and perform the service our profession was created to deliver – giving sound advice to sustain and build reputations over the long term.

Great effort goes into PR campaigns to engage customers, stakeholders and employees. But genuine engagement is undermined when PR professionals aid and abet their clients in dissembling, deflecting criticism and dissing critics or competitors.

As Hoggan says, doing the right thing isn't always easy, but in the long run clients and the public are better served.

[Hoggan & Associates is a member of Pinnacle Worldwide, a network of independently owned and operated public relations agencies in key markets around the world. CFM Strategic Communications President Gary Conkling is president-elect of Pinnacle Worldwide.]