Tuesday, May 1, 2012

How to handle "Open Mouth, Insert Foot"

It's Baseball season. Which can only mean Ozzie Guillen popping his mouth off again. Such as he did last month, when the Miami Marlins' new manager (he had a previous stint leading my charges, the White Sox, to a World Series title in 2005) shared his thoughts with Time Magazine on the admirable tenure and legacy of Fidel Castro.

Now, I happen to like Ozzie and, frankly, never minded his "shoot-from-the-lip" philosophy in general terms. However, here he is now in Miami and, well, Miami is home to nearly 800,000 Cuban descendents and refugees. Who are happy to be in Miami and not in Cuba because of, guess who, Fidel Castro.

Welcome to the May edition of Not Your Usual Marketing Tips from JDK Marketing Communications Management.

Marlins ownership and executive management immediately went into crisis management mode, suspending Guillen while encouraging him to offer a public apology, which he did.

(Just a few days ago, the Detroit Tigers' Delmon Young -- a problem child to begin with -- was arrested outside the New York hotel his visiting team was staying at, for having gotten into an oral altercation with tourists and a panhandler by hurling anti-semitic epithets at the latter. The Tigers have put Young on the Restricted List, which prohibits him from playing for the foreseeable future.)

Now, it's not likely that you will have loose cannon ballplayers to deal with. However, in our media-omniscient and litigious society, pretty much anything can happen at any time.

Even to you and your company.

So, how to deal with it...and how to prepare for it?

At JDK Marketing Communications Management, we do publicity, which is a component of the wider-ranging realm of public relations. Another component is crisis management.

I invited friend and colleague Dianne Chase to offer her take on the subject.

Dianne is President of Chase Media, a boutique media and public relations business, and Senior Partner at C4CS, LLC; responsible for development, and instruction in crisis communication, planning and management; message development, issues management, and presentation and interviewing skills training for corporate and government clients. Additionally, she has an extensive career in broadcast journalism; you can hear her anchor the news, weekends on WBT-AM 1110. Reach her at Dianne@chasemedia.us

Here are her (edited) thoughts:

1. Plan ahead and be prepared

A successful response to a business crisis typically demands making and effectively communicating far-reaching and emotionally difficult decisions while under pressure and perhaps lacking complete or fully accurate information. Proper crisis preparedness planning therefore inevitably calls for putting the necessary organizational structure, processes and tools in place before a crisis hits.

2. Maintain ongoing stakeholder dialogue

You have a much greater chance of achieving your communication objectives if there is already an ongoing and constructive dialogue with your stakeholders long before a crisis occurs. In-depth stakeholder analysis is a prerequisite for compelling and targeted stakeholder communication. Utilize automated Internet and intranet monitoring to identify and better understand stakeholder needs and customize your external and internal crisis communication accordingly. If employees are used to regular internal communication through certain channels, the same channels should also play a role in communicating with employees in times of crisis.

3. Talk to employees first

Whenever possible, internal crisis communication should precede external crisis communication. It is vital employees don’t hear negative crisis-related news from outside sources first, as it may alienate them and hinder the successful crisis response and recovery. Engaging in an honest dialogue with as many employees as possible also fosters better understanding and employee support for possibly unpopular yet necessary steps company leadership may have to take to manage the crisis and secure the future of the business.

4. Eradicate uncertainty

Ask yourself these questions before communicating with employees during a crisis:

• What is the desired outcome of the communication? [objective]

• What will be communicated? [message]

• Who will initiate the communication? [sender]

• Which groups of employees will be communicated with? [recipient]

• How and / or where is the communication going to happen? [channel and / or venue]

• When will the communication take place? [timeline]

• Address the following questions immediately after communicating with employees during a crisis and also as part of the post-crisis evaluation and ongoing crisis preparedness planning:

• Was the communication objective met? [evaluation]

• How can we do better? [optimization]

5. Tackle employees’ questions

Employees’ questions and concerns should be anticipated, identified and responded to on an ongoing basis. Because employees’ trust in management’s ability to handle the crisis is crucial, even those questions and concerns that seem unimportant or inconvenient should be addressed. Especially in cases where the company may be responsible for any harm to employees and their loved ones, consider communicating regret and empathy as well as a clear explanation of the steps the company is taking to deal with the situation and to prevent recurrences.

6. Create communication allies

Don’t forget that employees have a vested interest in working with management to prevail over the crisis – many are eager to put in extra time and effort to turn the ship around. Guide employees in their effort to speak up for the company. Empowering employees to take charge in times of crisis creates valuable communication allies who reinforce messages internally and also carry them into the community.

7. Be consistent in messaging

With the goal of coherent messages and simultaneous communication in mind, many companies implement a one-voice-policy: It means only appropriately trained and designated employees, who are electronically linked with senior management and one another, may act as company spokespersons. A disgruntled employee talking to the media may, however, pose a much more serious risk. Not only would this behavior sabotage the company’s one-voice-policy, but it may also threaten the entire crisis response. So be sensitive to employees’ needs and keep them informed and involved, while reiterating the company’s communication policies.

8. Convince leaders on feedback

Use the following three arguments if you need to convince senior managers of the value of employee feedback:

• Employee feedback allows you to track whether messages have reached the intended groups of employees and achieved the desired results.

• It enables you not only to track employees’ opinions, perceptions, and expectations, but also may reveal what colleagues and external stakeholders are saying to employees.

• Most importantly, employee feedback often contains valuable information and suggestions for minimizing damage, seizing opportunities and preventing future crises.

9. Involve senior management

Business crises can cause immense pressure and uneasiness for employees and their loved ones. In order to prevent debilitating rumors, false information and panic senior management must be actively involved in providing distressed employees and managers with relevant information, guidance and motivation. Aside from communicating with employees through traditional channels such as group meetings and employee newsletters, intranet-based crisis blogs are becoming increasingly popular. Blogs are an excellent listening tool and allow companies to establish rapport with external and internal stakeholders who are eager to comment on company positions and deeds. Blogs can easily be updated during a crisis, they enable instant and unfiltered two-way communication with stakeholders around the globe, and create a public record of opinions and related facts that helps to control rumors and speculation.

10. Consider external assistance

If you don’t have the necessary theoretical knowledge or crisis communication experience, consider retaining qualified external consultants. They can assist in boosting the company’s crisis readiness as well as its ability to effectively respond to and quickly recover from business crises.

Effective employee communication is a crucial component of any comprehensive crisis management strategy and indispensable to minimizing crisis-related damage and converting resulting organizational change into competitive advantages.

Join us again the first Tuesday of next month as we hope to present another crisis-free edition of Not Your Usual Marketing Tips.

Joel Kweskin

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