Remember Lawrence Foster’s crisis management principles

Don Silver
Don Silver

Special to the Miami Herald

In healthcare, there is something called the “Golden Hour.” It is the first 60 minutes following a traumatic injury during which there is the most likelihood that prompt medical attention will keep the patient alive. In the case of a heart attack victim, if treated quickly, it can even reverse its effects.

The same can be said when a company finds itself in the midst of a crisis. The faster the response, the more likely you will be able to keep your brand’s reputation intact and help your company to survive.

No one knew that better than Lawrence Foster. While you might not readily recognize the name, you may know his work. Foster is the man who, in 1982, was credited with helping to guide Johnson & Johnson through the infamous Tylenol scare in which seven people died after taking some of the capsules that had been laced with cyanide.

Foster died last month, but his legacy lives on. More than 30 years after he helped J&J to get through the scare, his work is considered the gold standard for reputation management. His was a multi-pronged strategy: Keep the public informed; put then-CEO, James Burke, in front of the media; pull the drug from store shelves; and develop tamper-resistant packaging.

However, too often during a crisis, company leaders flounder and that “Golden Hour” is lost — and along with it a company’s reputation. Some executives take the ostrich approach, putting their head in the sand and hoping that if they can’t see the problem, then neither can anyone else. Others obtain poor PR advice from their attorney who all but orders them not to talk to the media. What most learn the hard way is that the media aren’t going to sit around waiting for answers.

Neither will the social media. Reporters will dig and find sources, which can lead to a rush to judgment, while Twitter, interested bloggers and others may churn what little information they have into the vast online galaxy.

So what is a company facing a reputation crisis to do?

• Most important, have a crisis plan in place long before one actually occurs. Determine who should take the lead and serve as a spokesperson — this usually includes key executives, lawyers and your PR team. When possible, try to anticipate questions so you can confirm and reconfirm the facts and practice answering the tough ones. Never talk off the record.

• Be proactive and maintain control of the situation. Don’t wait for others to discover the crisis. You don’t want it to appear as if you have something to hide.

• Keep the message consistent. It should be a top-down approach. Don’t have the CEO say one thing and have your public relations person saying another.

• Don’t try to put a positive spin on a situation or deny culpability when your company is clearly to blame. If you don’t know the answer, admit it and tell interested parties that you are working to gather the information and will provide the answers as soon as you can.

While Lawrence didn’t have the advantages of the kind of social media that exists today, every company should have a social media policy in place. More important, remain engaged with your audience whether it’s through Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Google+ or any other venue. If you have a blog, use it. This should serve as your company’s voice and a place to which you can refer those with questions. It should be updated as regularly as your other social media channels and used to dispel any incorrect information.

A crisis is a moving target, and information changes. Stay on top of it, and make sure that you keep the news media informed up-to-the-minute. You never want a reporter telling you something you didn’t know about your own crisis.

Accommodate the media, and keep lines of communication open. If a reporter calls, don’t wait for hours before getting back to them. Have someone in place taking calls and making sure messages are returned in a timely manner. When possible, hold a news conference; this will serve to get the information out to all interested parties at one time and in one place.

Have team member or your public relations firm monitor the traditional and social media to see what is being said and reported, and if there is incorrect information being disseminated, then work to get it corrected as quickly as possible so that others don’t pick it up and report or post the wrong information as well.

By being quick to respond, open and helpful, your company will suffer fewer repercussions both immediately and down the road.

Don Silver is COO of Fort Lauderdale-based Boardroom Communications, a statewide public relations and integrated marketing agency. He co-leads the company’s busy crisis management practice.

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