– Text taken and adapted from the book “Expect the unexpected: a comprehensive introduction in the PrepTIME crisis management system” –

If we have good news, or want to introduce and sell a new product, nobody listens. We have to put in a lot of effort to draw the attention of our (potential) customers to our products. Expensive media and advertisement campaigns are needed to get the attention of some of the people that we want to reach.

Crises however, do attract attention by their very nature. They will capture the general public’s attention, who will in turn share eagerly on social media.

A crisis will put us on a stage, whether we like it or not. The spotlight is on. Now it’s up to us: are we going to remain silent, are we going to disappear backstage while the audience is listening with anticipation (and by doing so – allowing someone else to take our stage), or are we going to give a good show?

(Research) journalists are always after a scoop or a scandal. If, by thorough research they are able to highlight a thing that was carefully hidden by the person or organization that wants to avert public interest, they’ll jump right into it and will not rest until everything has seen the daylight. That may include the cause (or environmental side effects) of our crisis, that we carefully tried to hide.

It’s PrepTIME’s philosophy that everything will eventually come out. If somebody else digs up the information, it’s called a scandal and we get nailed for it. If we reveal it ourselves, it’s called lessons learned and considered as very cooperative. If we’ve disclosed the facts on our own initiative in an effort to prevent recurrence in a wider industry, it’s no longer a scoop. The research journalist will lose interest as all is out in the open already. No scandal, no blaming. The industry will thank us for being open and transparent in an effort to prevent them from having the same trouble as we went through.

Chances are, that if we disclose all facts ourselves, people will not consider it as a spectacular scandal and don’t even bother reading it. Only the professionals in the industry and our colleagues will be interested and learn something from it. What we’ve done now, is change the way the general public looks upon the incident. We chose to throw everything out in the open, and as a consequence, nobody bothers. The ones that do bother will see the incident in a whole different perspective: our organization is open, cooperative and constructive towards a safer industry.

We do have a very strong influence on how the public, including customers, suppliers and competitors (they all have smartphones and social media accounts and read news apps) look upon our organization. 

When news comes out in the open, every person will subconsciously form an opinion about what he/she hears or sees. That opinion is based upon the frame in which is it perceived.

If we act fast enough, we can decide what that frame is. We can dictate how the public looks upon our situation. That they look upon it, is a given fact which we cannot alter.

If there’s an incident, we have basically three options:

  1. Remain silent. Don’t say anything, don’t publish anything. Consequence: others will. They’ll say what they think is important, and form an opinion on the events and details that others have disclosed. They’ll talk about our situation without us having any influence on it. Reacting later and trying to add our version of the truth to the discussion, will be lost in the multitude of opinions and articles. We’ve lost initiative. It’s now up to the public opinion what remains of our reputation.
  2. Deny any involvement or guilt. Denying is an act of conflict. The corresponding reaction will be: “Is that so? Are you not guilty?” It’s like pulling a rope. If we pull, someone will pull back. The discussion is about our involvement or being guilty or not. Even if we’re not; the discussion focusses on guilt and involvement. It will take a lot of effort from our legal and PR departments to prove we’re right. Even if we are proven correct in court, people will remember the words ‘guilt’ and ‘lawsuit’ and associate those words with our brand. Maybe we were right from the start, but our reputation is out the window.
  3. Correspond fast, empathic and open. Be the first to break the silence and tell frankly what happened (they’ll find out anyway, better hear it from us). Speak about being sorry for the inconvenience or loss, express empathy for the people affected, promise care and show that our first priority is the inconvenience of others. Don’t deny anything, but do not admit to anything, either: our first priority is care. Promise to cooperate in investigations, do everything to prevent recurrence. Now the discussion is about support, compassion and the well-being of others. People may disagree with our point of view and have a different opinion, but at least we’ve selected the topic of their opinion.

By selecting option 3 we’ve won the ‘Framing Contest’. By being fast and open and selecting the topic that we want to talk about, we’ve taken the initiative. We are able to set the stage, and give a good show.

Although we may have sustained some (considerable) damage in the incident, by communicating openly and being empathic, our reputation comes out stronger than ever before. The industry will praise us for our openness. We don’t have any prolonged lawsuits with customers or (former) employees, as support and care were our main focus. We have invested heavily in that, but have saved huge amounts in legal costs.

We’ve ensured the future success of the company, and possibly its future existence. We’ve seized the opportunities that the crisis has given us and have come out stronger. Choosing option 1 or 2 is far easier. But when we do, the future will overcome us, and seemingly the events to come do not have anything to do with that crisis we suffered some time ago. Or do they?

Our conclusion is:

Be fast. Be open. Be empathic. Be honest. Take the initiative. Win the framing contest. Save the organization in the long term.

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