When Reputation is on the Line: Issues and Crises Strategies

Jeff Speer and Ashley Cadle

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”
– Warren Buffett, businessman, investor and philanthropist

The quintessential quote about reputation is well known but not often taken to heart. It’s easy to underestimate reputational risk, and even easier to think your company won’t experience a situation where your reputation is on the line. Unfortunately, that’s not the case and why every company should be prepared to face critical moments – issues or crises – that can have short- and long-term impacts on the business. This is especially true in healthcare, where many of these moments can truly be a matter of life or death.

Patient endangerment and harm, aggressive attacks from competitors and employee embezzlement are just a few situations our team has helped our clients navigate in recent years. Read on for key communications strategies and tactics we used in these situations (and many more) that can help you minimize damage to your organization’s business and reputation.

Be Prepared

Though you can’t predict when you’ll face an issue or what the exact situation will be, you can ensure you’re ready when it happens. Perhaps the most important step you can take is to establish a standing issues/crisis management team comprising key executives from leadership, medical, legal, regulatory, communications and other relevant departments.

You can take things a step further by developing situational scenarios that your company is most likely to face and preparing baseline strategies, messages and standby statements that can be customized (as needed) and approved quickly. Thinking these things through before you’re in the middle of an issue – when time might be short and emotions running high – will help ensure your strategies and tactics are comprehensive and on point, and your team can communicate swiftly. Consider revisiting the team and scenarios periodically, especially when your organization undergoes leadership changes.

Be Cynical

It’s challenging to anticipate how an issue can take on a life of its own: the amount of attention it receives, how long it goes on and how it affects people’s perceptions and actions. So, even as you’re issuing the communication of the day to quell the issue, try to plan for the worst-case scenario. For example, don’t assume that an adverse event that isn’t public won’t reach external audiences. People talk to each other (and reporters), and we all know how quickly things can spread on social media. If people believe you’re trying to hide something, their trust will erode, and your organization will attract more scrutiny. Maintaining a cynical mindset throughout managing an issue is imperative.

Be Comprehensive with Audiences

When an issue becomes public, it’s easy to focus your planning on preparing for or responding to the media. And while the media should certainly be a focal point, it’s important to assess the situation with all your audiences in mind so you can determine what (if anything) needs to be communicated to them and the best way to reach them. Because in a sensitive situation, there are many audiences that should hear directly from your organization even if – or especially if – it’s going to be covered in the news.

And don’t forget about your internal audiences! They are your most important asset. Not only do you need to maintain their belief in the organization and leadership, but in the case of public issues that generate lots of attention, you need to prepare your team for questions from both internal and external audiences. Communication from leadership and a reliable feedback loop with management are essential components.

You should also share specific guidance for communicating outside the organization. Typically, we advise reminding internal audiences that they are not to speak with media about the issue and instead to direct any media inquiries to the communications team. We also remind them not to post on social media or like/comment/share about the issue on social media.

Of course, you can’t stop people from talking about an issue, particularly in large organizations. And in many situations, employees can be your best ambassadors. If your employees have the facts and your side of the story, they can respond in a way that supports your organization and combat any misperceptions. So don’t shut them out.

Although no one wants to think that their company is going to face an issue or a crisis, it’s much better to have a plan in place for the often-inevitable possibility.

Be Strategic about Telling Your Story

Sometimes the best way to prevent an issue from becoming a crisis is to resist the instinct to react to everything or tell everything you know. Easier said than done, and that’s often when having an outside, objective perspective can be invaluable. Case in point: One of our clients was mentioned in a negative media story even though they were not the focus of the reporter’s investigation. This was a complex situation that involved multiple parties and legal issues. Understandably, the reporter – who was trying to understand what happened and who might be at fault – had many questions. We advised the client that if they responded to every question and corrected some technicalities, the company would likely become a larger part of the story. Instead, we worked with the client to provide a short and factual statement that clarified their role and position on the matter. As a result, our client’s inclusion in the story was limited, and they weren’t dragged into the controversy.

Be Ready

Although no one wants to think that their company is going to face an issue or a crisis, it’s much better to have a plan in place for the often-inevitable possibility. Effective strategic communications for issues and crisis management are essential for maintaining trust and credibility. By proactively preparing, transparently addressing concerns, considering all stakeholders and swiftly implementing response strategies, you can mitigate damages and even potentially turn crises into opportunities for growth and improvement. With the right elements in place, you can navigate even the most challenging situations with resilience and integrity.

If you should need help thinking through your issues response strategy and potential preparations, feel free to contact us.