We’ve all done it: The fire drill. You’re in the middle of a workday when the alarm bells go off. You leave a project you’re jamming on, walk outside to the designated area, listen to the fire marshal give the spiel about safe exit routes and where you can find a fire extinguisher. Then you go back to your desks and carry on with your day, assured in the fact that if the real thing happened–a three-alarm fire rips through your cultivation or 50-story office building–you would know the path to take to escape unscathed.
But do you have a Fire Drill in place for your Company’s Reputation?
A negative incident that spins out of control in the echo chambers of our small tight-knit community and then through traditional and social media is enough to keep any CEO up at night. But if you have a plan in place, you will sleep better. And by the way, the best crisis communications plan–or what I prefer to call a Response Strategy–is one that you never have to actually implement. I mean, how many building fires have you had to escape from? In this latest installment of my Cannabis Business Executive column on communications for the cannabis industry, I’m going to line out the steps to take for an effective response strategy.
Expect the unexpected.
You know the scenarios that keep you up at night. It may be a product recall or an employee dispute. Just as most companies conduct corporate retreats with the executive leadership team, I suggest carving out a chunk of time to map out potential scenarios and corresponding response strategies. It may be difficult to sit around a room and vocalize the biggest pitfalls your company could encounter, but if you can map out a plan of action in advance, you will have a road map should such a situation ever threaten the future of your organization.
List out the top five crisis scenarios that keep you up at night. I’ll get you started with some basic scenarios:
- A product recall;
- Accusations of inappropriate employee behavior;
- Issues with a corporate partner resulting in a lawsuit;
- Consumer allegations of inferior product quality;
- A regulatory decision that threatens the existence of your business model.
Maybe you’ve already gone through one or all of the above scenarios. If you haven’t, you should be prepared to. Once you identify these scenarios draft potential responses for any potential outcome. If in the future you are faced with such a scenario, you will be a step ahead in the process, and have copy to work from in the heat of the moment.
Identify your response team.
It may seem obvious, but actually identify who your response team is for each specific scenario, including who the spokesperson would be. This should include a communications professional–either in-house or consultant–who will run point on the issue. After all, company executives such as the CEO need to keep a company running. The response team will likely include the CEO, a compliance representative, and a combination of other executive staff depending on the departments involved. You will also likely want to have Human Resource representation in instances that involve employees. And the importance of legal representation cannot be understated. Make sure a response team list includes up-to-date contact details for everyone. This is something that should be updated regularly.
Don’t let a negative scenario be the first time the media hears from you.
There are plenty of cannabis companies that prefer to fly under the radar, keep their heads down, get the work done, particularly companies that are privately held. But you don’t want a negative incident to be the first time a reporter or a regulator learns about your company. Develop relationships when times are good. Resolve to schedule at least one briefing a month with a reporter who is covering your sector. Regularly share positive news about your company through press releases.
And should your company get caught up in a crisis situation, “No Comment” is not an acceptable response. Pulling the “No Comment” card makes you look like you have something to hide. If a reporter is reaching out for a response, this is an opportunity to provide proof that the company is investigating a cause, working to remedy a situation, or that an issue has been misconstrued. Being responsive and accountable in a crisis can win hearts and minds in the Court of Public Opinion, while radio silence can be a nail in your coffin. And hopefully at this point I don’t need to state the obvious but trying to bully or intimidate reporters not to cover a specific story will probably backfire. If there’s a story that is going to run in the news, you should ensure that your side of the story is included.
Be honest and transparent.
Honesty is always the best policy in business. It is critical to remain transparent and honest during a crisis. Be responsive from the moment you become aware of the issue. And in many situations, regular updates go a long way to assure the public you are doing all you can to get to the bottom of the issue.
Have a digital / social media presence.
Your digital presence is no longer just a “nice to have.” It is imperative that your company has a robust and up-to-date website and has instituted social media channels. This is often the first place your key constituents–including media, consumers and investors–will turn to for information. Additionally, these are channels where you can tell your story without filter or prejudice. Post statements and press releases as soon as possible after an incident and then consider sharing the links over social media, before any opposition efforts can gain control of the narrative.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
It’s a fact: As a company leader, you are likely to be faced with an organizational crisis at some point. But if you have an ethical, honest, transparent team in place and you have a plan, you are more likely to get a handle on the issue before it goes viral. In fact, you just might come out the other side with a stronger reputation than ever.