We all remember the brand devastation VW experienced after the EPA charged the company with developing software to cheat emissions tests.

The brand was raked over the coals by the media and consumers who vented their anger and frustration online. Day after day there were relentless blows to the brand, and it took much longer than a few months before the chaos began to settle.

The fact is, brands get dinged, dented, and damaged every day, many times for unpredictable events outside of their control. All it takes is a bad decision, a large mistake, the nefarious acts of a disgruntled employee, or carelessness to damage or destroy a brand. Manufacturers are some of the most vulnerable with product recalls – cars, pharmaceuticals, space heaters, tires, electronics, etc. Service-based businesses can suffer a crisis over something as simple as an unintentional breach of security or an employee posting inappropriate comments on Facebook. And then there are the YouTube videos of employees working at fast food or quick-service restaurants doing unimaginable things to food or in the kitchen.

As no brand is immune from the crisis virus, every company should be prepared with a thorough, comprehensive, and documented crisis communications plan so that everyone knows how to respond when the unfortunate does happen. In other words, don’t wait for a fire to erupt before running to the store to buy a fire extinguisher.

Start by making a list of your potential vulnerabilities, or those things that could go wrong, and how you would respond to all the different types of media attention. Aside from the obvious potential crises manufacturers typically face such as product recalls, plant disasters (and their environmental impacts), worker injury or death,  plant shutdown for (safety, environmental or regulatory) violations,  cyberattacks and acts employee nefariousness, what else could happen that would turn your world upside down in a split second? Once identified, you can start planning for the best way to react for each unique occurrence.

A good plan will serve as a step-by-step, play-by-play for how to handle the media (including social media) and any public/customer outrage. Your company will need to have a spokesperson trained on how and when to deliver information internally to employees, and externally to the media. The way you handle the crisis and its aftermath is just as significant as the crisis itself. Once you have your plan, it would be very beneficial to run several drills so that everyone involved understands their individual roles.

You should also have a system in place to have our brand continuously monitored online. Many times, small and seemingly insignificant issues have the potential to turn into large, problems. Like cancer, the longer such issues are ignored, the more difficult they are to remedy. Small things need to be quickly nipped in the bud.

Also, create and implement a comprehensive training program to avoid accidental crises, set expectations and boundaries to prevent unintentional consequence crises, and establish codes of conduct along with consequences of violation to prevent dumb-idea crises.

So what should you do if, and when, your brand suffers an assault?

  1. As the CEO, once you learn of the crisis, tell your employees what is happening and what you are doing about it. If there are corrosive conversations taking place on the Internet (social media, blogs, forums, etc.), those conversations need to be handled by a trained communications professional. In nearly all cases, employees should not be talking to the media or posting anything online.
  2. Immediately embark on a fact-finding mission to identify the source and cause of the crisis. For the sake of transparency and credibility, this mission should be executed by an independent professional outside of your company. Target made a wise move by hiring a third-party forensics firm to handle investigations when they suffered a security and data breach.
  3. When possible, continue with business as usual and do not dwell on the crisis. As distracting as the crisis may be, you’ll need to keep the business running and the cash register ringing. GM, Ford, and Toyota don’t stop production of vehicles when they issue recalls.
  4. Once the source of the crisis is uncovered and a solution has been decided upon, take immediate action, and let your employees know as well as the public. Your crisis communication plan should have well thought out messages to deliver, based on the nature of the crisis.

Of course, one of the easiest ways to prevent a crisis is to instill a culture of always doing the right thing, no matter what.

If you need a crisis communication plan for your company, let’s talk.