“If swine flu was going to be the lead story, then I wanted something to counter it,” he says. Local media were eager for the chance to cover the outbreak from a new angle, and the story eventually made its way to The Wall Street Journal. In the article, the news outlet recognized Smithfield’s for its social-media savvy in the face of a crisis.
Of course, the facts were on Smithfield’s side during that incident. But even when that’s not the case, Stewart recommends complete communication with the media.
“If you don’t share information, then that leads people to guess,” she says. “That is never in your best interest.”
At the same time, questions should be answered only with information that is certain to be accurate.
“If it’s outside of your area of expertise, don’t speculate,” Stewart says. “Don’t be afraid to say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t answer that question.’”
One of the most effective ways to control the information the media receives is to appoint a lead communicator for media inquiries. In the case of Domino’s, that was McIntyre.
“I answered every media phone call,” McIntyre says. “I answered every e-mail.”
Successful media handling was part of the reason Domino’s got through the storm largely unscathed (stock prices were not affected by the incident). But not everyone was so lucky. The Conover store did not survive the incident, and surrounding Charlotte-area locations are still recovering from continued coverage of the event by local media.
The key that will help a brand overcome potential disaster, crisis-management experts say, is preparing for it before it hits.
“We recommend going through a risk-assessment process and looking to mitigate or avoid as many of those risks as possible,” Stewart says. That involves examining the operation’s entire food-production process, imagining all of the things that could potentially go wrong at each point, and taking steps to prevent those from happening.
Domino’s McIntyre also recommends becoming involved in the community by shopping around your store and contributing to local organizations.
“Let people know who you are and where you are,” he says. “In the event that something happens, people will be more likely to forgive you.”
Damage-control experts also recommend putting a leadership team in place that will be responsible for making any decisions in the event of a crisis.
“If you don’t have a leader with absolute power, you don’t have a crisis team,” Dezenhall says. “It all comes back to the leader.”
Once that team is in place, prepare it to respond to worst-case scenarios. For some, that means formal training with a crisis-management expert. Others prefer to discuss all of the possible crises and develop a plan for dealing with each one.
“Your response will impact your reputation as much if not more than the incident itself,” McIntyre says. And the more you do to figure out how you’ll handle a crisis before the fact, the better your response will be.