Avoiding a high-tech communications crisis

Gene Carozza

When it comes to the high-technology market, the possibility of something going wrong within your company is less a matter of “if” than “when.”

While certain goings-on within your company will always remain under your control, many others will not. Unfortunately, it’s the factors under your control that often get overlooked until it’s too late. Then it becomes a crisis, or at the very least, a problematic situation needing immediate attention that drains your resources.

Communication_Crisis_PR.jpgSource: pexels.com used under CC license.

Now, not everything is automatically deemed a crisis. Natural disasters, product recalls, C-level scandals, layoffs or workplace tragedies certainly fit the bill. Other occurrences can just simply make you look bad as a team or put egg on your collective company face. Getting ahead of Murphy’s Law can help prevent those less significant missteps from turning into bigger communication headaches. So, let’s look at four essential steps technology companies can take to avoid a potential crisis from happening using policy, training, staying ahead of the incident and planning.

First, make sure there are policies in place companywide that make employees cognizant of anything related to the media and social media. Most large companies have a policy in place that prevents employees from reaching out or engaging with the media. This ensures that only approved, designated spokespeople are turned to when the media comes calling.

The biggest mistakes we see here are at conferences or tradeshows, or when a reporter meets someone giving a presentation or approaches someone at the booth. Make sure employees know the proper channels needed to handle such inquiries to avoid the pre-announcing of products, services, competitive data or other sensitive company information.

Also, most companies overlook how social media can impact the company. An angry tweet at a reporter or competitor can cause problems for the communications team in a hurry. Even an embarrassing personal Facebook or LinkedIn post can tie back to the company. To avoid this, reach out to your HR colleagues to make sure language is written into every employee contract that specifically outlines what is and isn’t acceptable for media interaction and social media posting.

Unfortunately, written policy sometimes isn’t enough — this is especially the case with company executives. Your communications team leader must be thick-skinned enough to properly counsel higher-level execs about how errant social posts can bring potentially damaging problems back to the company.

Second, take the steps to safeguard that people are suitably proficient in media relations and on the social media channels. The entire bench of spokespeople should be taken through interactive coursework that teaches them the many nuances of working with media and market analysts. Besides overall presentation skill development, they’ll learn not to divulge unapproved customer names, how to handle tough questions, when to defer questions to someone more in the know.

The same holds true for social media. The old adage “We all work for sales” has never been more true. But I like to twist this a bit and say “We’re all brand ambassadors for the company.” Leverage the power of social media engagement across company departments, but avoid the mistakes that can — and will — be made by embarking on a comprehensive training program.

Learn more about integrated marketing and PR, read: Implementing an Integrated Marketing and PR Strategy for Healthcare Brands.

The third common mistake communications teams make when a problem occurs is when the question “what do we do/what do we say, if anything?” comes up.

In almost every potential crisis or brewing problem situation, the best advice is this: Get ahead of the message. Don’t risk taking a “wait and see what happens” or “maybe no one will find out” approach. This is especially true in the technology market. Employees talk, even to their friends at competing companies. Competitors will get wind and often turn to the media — adding in their own two cents — to help expose the issue. Customers will learn from a third-party source. Add in the element of social media and the fires get out of control in a matter of minutes. Product problems or delays, service cycle time, executive departures or large personnel changes will occur from time to time. Don’t get put on the defensive and be forced to respond to rumor and or speculation. Get ahead of the issue, define it in truthful, accurate terms and maintain your company’s integrity and brand. The short-term hit will far outweigh any long-term negative perceptions.

Finally, it goes without saying that you should have a proper and current plan in place to combat any communication problem that arises. While you cannot always pre-define what will happen, you can outline the team, process, response channels and supporting collateral needed when an untimely event occurs. Pre-defining roles and responsibilities will make sure everyone involved knows what steps to take and when to take them. Going through this exercise during the time of a crisis adds an unnecessary and guaranteed crazed burden on both you and your senior and communication teams.

While the notions of policies (and don’t forget enforcement of them!), training, being proactive and planning are not new, they are certainly often overlooked, especially in the technology space. You may be reading this and saying to yourself “It’s not going to happen to me or my company.” That’s what every other person who ended up in a tight situation said. We constantly see and read about circumstances that could have been avoided by companies and individuals but simply were not. And the ramifications can be costly, time consuming and long lasting.

The most reputable of companies got that way because they had the foresight to handle potential problem situations the proper way.

This post originally appeared in O'Dwyer PR Magazine's November 2016 Technology issue, on page 24.

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