One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Warren Buffett, who so famously said, “If you lose money for the firm, I will be understanding. Lose a shred of reputation, and I will be ruthless.”
That’s because you can always make more money as an organization, but if you damage a reputation, it’s almost always impossible to come back from that. Once the damage is done, no amount of money or groveling will help.
This is why it’s so important to think about a crisis before it happens. Yet, most organizations (and celebrities) think about a crisis when it happens—and they’re already embroiled in the reputation hits.
It’s understandable. No one thinks a crisis will befall them, and they certainly don’t think their reputation will take a big enough hit that it will ruin them, so they turn a blind eye or put their heads in the sand or whatever cliche you want to use. Why spend money and time on something that may or may not affect the organization?
Yet, in today’s digital, 24/7 world, things happen, and nearly every organization will have to deal with at least an issue, if not a full-on crisis or reputation hit.
Think about crisis communications as an insurance plan. You might never need it, but if you do, you’ll be grateful you had the foresight to plan and practice for a crisis.
Essential Crisis Communications Planning
There is no shortage of crises to use as case studies and to study for best practices on what not to do. Take, for instance, Lizzo.
She is currently under fire for allegedly creating a toxic workplace, complete with sexual harassment, body shaming, and racial and religious discrimination. All from a leader who has built a brand and reputation on accepting all body types and being inclusive.
But her situation is potentially more damaging than a reputational hit brought on by employees against a leader. They challenge her brand values. Not only has she campaigned for inclusivity and against body shaming and bullying, her songs are “anthems of empowerment and self-acceptance. She lives freely and unapologetically, whether twerking on the beach with her besties or modeling stylish crop tops from her shapewear brand Yitty.”
She does more than just talk; she lives her values.
While the charges against her are serious, they haven’t yet hurt her reputation. Sure, some of her fans are asking, “What the heck is going on?” but right now, no one knows what is true and what’s being used against her because of her deep pockets. However, should these allegations be proven true or should she lose in court, her reputation could suffer irreparable damage.
As Seth Arenstein put it so eloquently in CommPro Biz, “Like relationships, reputations have highs and lows. Some things burnish reputations, others hurt, becoming small negatives or large, direct hits. At this moment, it’s unclear how the lawsuit against pop star Lizzo ultimately will affect her reputation and career.”
So, what can we learn from Lizzo? And why is it so crucial to focus on crisis communications before the storm hits?
Preparedness Is Key
I’m full of cliches today, but “failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” This could not be more true in crisis communications. Remember, planning for your eventual crises is having insurance. You hope you never need to use it, but you’ll be glad it’s there if you do.
The Right Message At the Right Time
Lizzo did one thing really well when the lawsuit hit—she immediately released a statement. I would argue it wasn’t the right statement, but she didn’t bury her head and pretend it wasn’t happening. She hit it head-on, allowing the rumor mill to settle down. She still has a long road ahead of her, but releasing a statement immediately and staying in front of her own story will be very effective.
Earlier this year, we had a client in crisis who had great relationships with their local media. When push came to shove, they were able to use those relationships to help tell their story to their community and to their customers. The journalists always got their side of the story before publishing anything, which saved them.
Please, please, please, PLEASE have media-trained spokespeople who are experts in handling external communications during a crisis. Many moons ago, we had a different client in crisis who let anyone on their executive team speak for the company; it was a D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R. They had one particular executive who meant so well, but the company got fined every time he opened his mouth. After the second time of this happening, I had to call the CEO and demand they make him stop talking.
It was a great lesson for us, too. We now demand that only two people, tops, are allowed to speak on behalf of the organization during a crisis.
I don’t have to tell you how much social media has changed how we work and live today. Even if your organization doesn’t use social media to drive revenue, it’s imperative you use it to communicate during a crisis. Every one of your constituents is on social media, and unless they are of a certain age, it’s where they go to get their information. They expect updates on X (formerly known as Twitter), Facebook livestreams, and even LinkedIn updates. Don’t ignore it, and don’t pretend no one cares. They do.
As Lizzo has experienced, any misstep can lead to a lawsuit. Proper crisis communications planning can help in setting the tone for possible legal battles. But more so, it provides open communication with counsel to be ready with approved messaging and a direct line to work as quickly as possible in providing details that can save reputation and revenue.
Crisis communications isn’t just about the immediate fallout. If you plan appropriately and insure your brand against the inevitable, you’ll be able to build a long-term strategy that reinforces the brand’s positioning in the market and the minds of the stakeholders.
The importance of crisis communications planning can’t be stressed enough. It’s not a mere contingency plan but a vital strategic element for any brand, individual, or organization aiming for long-term success.
While it may seem like an unnecessary expenditure or an exercise in negativity to plan for the worst, remember Warren Buffett’s words. Reputation, once lost, is hard to regain, but with preparation, its loss can often be prevented.