Your employees can be your biggest crisis management threat. Here’s how you can prepare.

By Jim James, Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of The UnNoticed Entrepreneur. 

 

Joining me from San Diego, California, PR Security Service’s David Oates was featured in the latest episode of The UnNoticed Entrepreneur. He has a background of over 25 years in public relations (PR), working both in the naval and defence areas and in the corporate world. In the episode, he discussed ransomware and how he helps companies and entrepreneurs not only get noticed but also be safeguarded.

 

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A Costly Crisis

According to the latest statistics, a ransomware attack occurs in an organisation every 11 seconds. It’s projected to cost businesses around the world about $10.5 trillion by 2025.

This is just one area where David helps out: He helps organisations communicate effectively during this type of crisis. He also helps in other types of crises.

Unfortunately, we're in a situation today wherein people communicate largely through their own devices and social media accounts — and not through a third-party or intermediary-trained journalist — to find and comment on information. This means that any organisation of any size (from your local pub in Suffolk to the global Fortune 1,000 companies) can find their reputation being called into question by a LinkedIn post, a TikTok video, or an Instagram post. Today, picking their own poison is the way in which people find themselves dealing with crisis PRs.

The big press conferences wherein BBC One is at the front doorsteps of an organisation and the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) or the board president is nervously trying to answer questions certainly still happen. But more often than not, for most organisations, it's something online that calls their reputation into question and subsequently disrupts their operations. And David has had the privilege and honour of helping many businesses with that.

 

How Do You Prepare for a Crisis?

It’s not just humans who are causing mischief. Some of the culprits are nasty bots. But how does David help a company prepare for a crisis?

According to him, an organisation should prepare for any other kind of disaster — whether it’s about ransomware attacking them, their network systems going down, their supply chain getting disrupted, or their employee committing a mishap or being unable to go to their physical office to do their work. They should have these types of disaster recovery plans that discuss, How do we keep operations going during that time?

 

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What gets lost in many cases is how organisations communicate to their audiences when those occur.

When called upon, what he’d like to do is to interject a communications plan ahead of time. And this involves figuring out different types of circumstances that may occur depending on the industry and the size and scale of an entity. You should also determine what is it that you will say to whom, when, and by whom. Then, train those designated spokespeople to be able to answer not only the basic questions but also those that he calls the “gotcha” questions or questions that people ask that have some sort of inherent or unconscious bias.

When a crisis occurs, audiences — employees, customers, partners, investors, and the general public — will first and foremost look to find out what went wrong and who was responsible. And when there’s a question that's raised, usually with a bias or with an unconscious belief (if not overt belief) that something was missed, something went awry, and it's somebody to blame — he will help you answer that in an empathetic and action-oriented manner while staying on message and not necessarily admitting any culpability.

Being able to do this requires training similar to what you do for any other kind of disaster recovery. He understands that most organisations don't do that; it's usually a lower priority because unless you've been through it, you really don't understand the likelihood of that occurring.

But as he mentioned earlier, in this day and age, even if the press doesn't show up, you've got somebody within that organisation who will write a Glassdoor review or post something on Facebook. And that has the potential to go viral and become something that will draw a lot of questions. A lot of enquiries will take the team — including the executive suite — away from doing their normal day-to-day operations and away from being able to service customers and partners in the manner that they've expected. And for him, this is the definition of a crisis. Anything that takes you away from operations and has your reputation being called into question is a crisis.

You have to prepare for these situations so you can get back to normal as quickly as possible. Ultimately, his goal is to help you do that and help you work on whatever damage there is to your brand in the process.

 

Detecting Where a Crisis May Arise

To help organisations monitor where a crisis might bubble up next — or, as an analogy, to whack a mole — David said that every individual within an organisation has to be looked at as a broadcaster. For instance, he himself has a wonderful little device in his pocket that can serve as a media outlet; it has a camera and a microphone and it carries social media applications that serve as his distribution system.

If you run a business or an organisation, you have to look at everybody that you engage with, including your employees. Your employees are probably your most important audience because they’re a broadcaster on their own.

 

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Thankfully, there are free systems that you can put into place and allow you to facilitate monitoring. For instance, Google has an alert feature. You can put keywords into these systems and you can get alerted (typically within two hours) if there’s new content that involves your organisation's name and individuals.

You don't want to be the last person to know that somebody has said something about you. And Google Alerts is a wonderful way to monitor things because it doesn't cost a dime. You just have to have an email address and set up a Google account and you're on your way.

David also uses platforms like TweetDeck, Hootsuite, and other tools that can monitor social media platforms. These also have the same system wherein you’ll get alerted if somebody is talking about your organisations or individuals.

 

Why Pay Attention to Your Employees

It’s also important not to forget about the other thing: your offline capabilities. David always tells organisations — no matter what industry they’re in, whether they’re for-profit or not, whether they’re a government entity or not — that their first priority should be their staff.

You have to engage your employees and understand what they feel. Because they're the ones who will either promote what you're trying to espouse (especially in times of crisis) — or, if they don’t feel connected or if you’ve disenfranchised them because you’ve forgotten about them in all of your communications, they will be the first and loudest voice to disparage you; they will counter anything that you’ll try to say in the public domain.

For him, one of the things that any management needs to get back to is what he learned in the Navy — and that is leadership or management by walking around. Get out of your cubicle, walk around your space, talk to people, look how they're doing, and see what makes them tick.

Now, we're in a day and age where we’re working remotely, thanks to COVID. But still, you have a phone that you can use to talk to your employees. Get on to Zoom and see how they’re doing. Do a one-on-one not to direct tasks but to check in on them. And for David, it’s one of the best monitoring tools that he thinks is often not used to its fullest.

Ignoring the need for employee engagement will give you what Amazon has suffered. Because if the employees are not in alignment, they can just film things that they don't like about the organisation and publish them.

Today is probably one of the most powerful times for employees. Nowadays, we’re seeing a global workforce shortage. And with that, employees have very strong leverage in many parts of the world, especially in the UK, Europe, and the US where there are just not enough people to do all of the jobs that companies need. They’re not only commanding salaries higher than what they may have asked for two years ago; they're also commanding more attention to make sure that they are understood and listened to and that their workplace satisfaction is high.

David has a LinkedIn learning course about how to communicate to recruit and retain top employees at this age. And this has more to do with their feeling of value than the actual amount that you pay them. The salary has to be there for sure, but employees don't leave companies for money more than they leave companies because they feel disconnected from their boss and from the organisation as a whole. That's what will draw more people away from one entity to go to another.

 

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Channels You Can Use In Times of Crises

For David, it’s important to have a robust social media presence and a working website that has a news page where you can put information that is readily accessible to a wide audience. But equally as important is an employee app.

Social media and your website are the dominant ways in which you can communicate to a wider range of customers, partners, investors, and the general public. But through an employee app (if you don't have an employee app, you should have at least some sort of an intranet site), you can talk to employees and let them know about important matters.

Whether it’s Yammer, Slack, or one of the other apps that are out there (there’s an app called Mobibi, which is a central platform wherein all employees of a company can communicate), you should have it in place so you can communicate readily to your team — whether your team is in one office or you've got a global workforce.

Apart from the systems and assets, you should also have people understand who is going to be responsible for taking and disseminating a certain approved message to certain audience segments in a short period of time.

If things are starting to bubble in the public domain (e.g. social media sites) and you see it going viral or you’re getting an enquiry from a news organisation, you have to start thinking within minutes — not hours and days — to make a response. You don't have a great deal of time like you would have a generation ago when you could wait till the end of the day to submit a statement to a local news organisation knowing that it wasn't going to run in the paper until tomorrow morning. This is not the case anymore. You've got about an hour before something starts to take hold and starts to get ranked on Google. And that's your time to respond.

So apart from being able to ready your assets, you also have to have trained people who understand crisis management. They are important in order to get ahead of the narrative that will be set without you. And in the long run, they will cost you far less in terms of damage to your brand and the length of time that it will take to repair that damage.

 

How About Addressing a Crisis Involving a Customer?

A lot of organisations will look upon this situation as an opportunity to neutralise the threat. They will start to do one of two things to the customer who is complaining online and in a very vocal sense. Whether they're paid or not by a rival is almost immaterial to the tech and the strategy at hand — they will either ignore that person completely or they will engage that individual directly in a very argumentative debate called a point-counterpoint argument. In those two cases, all the organisation does is exacerbate the problem.

If you ignore the issue thinking that it will go away, it will only give credence to that person and will have your organisation be looked upon by others as either being uncaring or incompetent. But if you decide to engage in an argumentative standpoint, trying to disparage that individual — whether you have a right to because that individual is absolutely making false accusations or not — you will wind up raising the level of anxiety and animosity.

You don't solve an issue by just raising your voice. It certainly doesn't work in an online forum with a customer. What needs to happen (David said this is true for any crisis communications effort for any organisation of any size) is that you have to have two things present in your responses — empathy and action.

 

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Taking the customer’s standpoint, you have to at least acknowledge that somebody is not happy. Say that you appreciate the fact that that customer is not happy and you want to make it right. Enumerate the things that you’d like to talk about with that customer and ask them to engage with you offline if that customer is complaining online (e.g. on an online review site, a blog, or Instagram).

Acknowledging them and offering them a way to try to make things better is the way to go. However, it doesn't mean that the individual is going to take that offer up. For instance, if they're paid by a rival to make an argument, they're going to continue to complain. But in doing that, you will show everyone who will see your posts that you’re listening and you’re taking action.

This will then help you build up a brand of integrity and quality; a brand that’s caring. If you show that even during not-so-good times or, at least, in a situation wherein somebody is calling you out because they believe that you have not realised their expectations — you're telling everybody else that this is the exception to the rule.

He has given this same advice both to small entities and larger organisations: To say nothing or to get into an argument online is not going to solve the problem. You will only exacerbate it.

 

On Getting His Own Business Noticed

David believes that personal connections are how most individuals — particularly in the services business — get their businesses noticed. In his case, he spends a great deal of time (about 20 to 25 hours a week) meeting people, hearing their stories, and finding ways to connect with them. And when these people know of someone who is facing a bubbling crisis, they are kind enough to refer him to them.

For him, what works is one individual at a time. It’s years in the making and it does bring success but he emphasised that you have to continually do that on a daily basis.

 

The best time to get in touch with a crisis management expert like David is before a crisis. To find out more about him, visit his LinkedIn page or his company website, www.publicrelationssecurity.com. On his website, you can find links to his LinkedIn learning courses and video blogs that you can download for free.

This article is based on a transcript from my podcast The UnNoticed Entrepreneur, you can listen here. 

Cover image by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

 

David B Oates
Guest
David B Oates
Founder