May 01, 2017

Crises Small Firms May Face: Charting a Communications Route for Reputation Management

Michelle Irwin

This is the second in a series of three articles on crisis communications for small firms and sole practitioners.




Crisis communications is a core element of any comprehensive marketing and communications plan. How well firms prepare prior to a crisis will have a significant impact on how the firm is viewed and trusted after a crisis event. Pre-planning communications strategies for the various crises a firm may face is the right step toward positive brand reputation.

A firm may face any number of crisis scenarios, but when it comes to the cause, how the firm is perceived is crucial to its response. Stakeholders will view the firm in one of three ways: victim, cause, or enabler.



Victim, Cause, or Enabler?

Are you the victim of a crisis because an outside entity caused your firm harm? Crises of this type may include theft, cyber-breach, or malicious misconduct. Your communications should quickly identify the cause and the steps you are taking to correct the problem—ultimately creating a narrative that garners empathy from your audiences.

Is the cause of the crisis directly linked to actions you or your firm took? Examples in which the firm may have contributed to the cause of the crisis may include safety or health issues, partner disputes, or mismanagement episodes. In your initial communications, take responsibility for actions causing the crisis and define the actions being taken to mitigate a repeat occurrence. If there are victims resulting from the incident, demonstrate your concern for their welfare and clearly communicate any efforts being implemented to aid and support them.

How does a firm enable a crisis? Enabling can be a source of the cause when an employee or policy fails to provide proper protections, resulting in the crisis. Using free WiFi at a local Starbucks is not only convenient, but an enjoyable way to work between client calls. It’s also a convenient way for sensitive client information to be easily accessed, which then projects a firm image of incompetence. When policies or actions enable a crisis, communications efforts should acknowledge the incident and include strategies to review and revise policies, employee communications, and training.

Now that a firm’s role in the crisis has been identified, it’s time to consider developing a crisis communications strategy that is implemented long before you become the victim, cause, or enabler of a crisis.



Creating the Crisis Plan: Key Elements to Anticipate During Planning

Communications efforts will be far more effective if you begin by defining potential crises your firm may face and evaluating options for incident management that are both clearly defined and understood by firm leadership and employees. Clarify the roles of each key leader and team member, prepare a crisis guide with vital information to see you through the incident, and be sure it has been reviewed and practiced. This is a critical first step to managing an incident before it hits.

Communicators are pressured to get messages out quickly, and risk managers often seek to know every fact and detail prior to communicating with stakeholders, which can create conflict when a crisis event is in full force. Map relationships between the legal department and the communications department to collaboratively protect your organization both legally and reputationally. Together, communications and risk management can craft potential message points and legally approve them in advance. Taking this preparatory step is a great way to ensure you legally get ahead of the story and drive the narrative in a manner that mitigates the chance for related litigation and regulatory investigations.

Have a clearly written plan that aligns with communications best practices, policy, and procedures. Conduct a gap analysis of your policies regularly, and revise them to align with the current climate and regulations. Social media and media relations policies should reflect what can or cannot occur during work hours, on official social media sites, or on behalf of the firm, as well as what employees can and cannot say on their personal social media accounts. It should also include potential risk scenarios your firm or practice may experience and communications efforts you may make in response to each scenario.


Crisis Communications Planning: Best Practices

As you focus your attention on the actual communications, a general press release or statement is never enough. Identify who are your key audiences and what are the best media channels to utilize to ensure they get your message.

Draft possible messages to align with identified crises you may face. While I always recommend drafting an initial statement first, it is good to take this to the next level and tailor messages to specific audiences and media channels. A prepared press release will look far different than a social media post. An executive message may include a greater level of detail than a general message to employees.

One of the most difficult situations people may face during a crisis is interfacing with the media. Reporters are competing with their rivals to break the news first, and they want facts that will make their story unique. To prepare for the inevitable interview, be sure to identify the spokesperson and/or people that will be allowed to speak on behalf of the firm, and ensure they are properly trained for the task. Prepare a media kit of pertinent background information and firm facts to avoid the non-essential follow-up calls reporters often need to create the backstory.



A marketing plan that focuses solely on business development could eventually put your firm in jeopardy when a crisis becomes a reality. Be certain to expand your firm’s marketing efforts to include proactive planning that will help your firm communicate effectively through turbulent times.


Michelle Irwin


Michelle Irwin is a vice president for Poston Communications and brings more than 15 years of executive, inside experience managing crisis communications in the public sector. Her effective and timely message management during high-level crisis events has proven to be essential in the maintenance of positive brand image.