Protecting a company’s image during the pandemic
What measures should businesses take to minimise the risk of an image crisis and safeguard the interests of the company and its employees?
During the pandemic, companies are more likely than usual to experience an image crisis. Remote working and limited activity in many departments do not favour either crisis prevention or efficient crisis management. Companies are primarily focused on maintaining safe working conditions and business continuity rather than on preventing an image crisis, which can be a costly mistake. Intrusions from the media, disgruntled employees or proactive competitors can take advantage of your lack of focus. Thus, it is important to remember that, in this case too, prevention is better than cure.
It is crucial to maintain contact with employees
It is a cliché to say that most crises in a company arise from internal causes. Dissatisfied and frustrated employees are a fundamental source of information for journalists. A few anonymous statements on social networking sites or specialised employee services are enough to draw the attention of the media to what is going on in a company. Thus constant, open and – as far as possible – two-way contact with employees is key to managing the risk of an image crisis, especially when working remotely.
It is important to ensure that employees have a safe space to express their opinions or dissatisfaction without fear of losing their job. It is far better to listen to employees, identify their needs and even adapt to their requirements than to react only when problems in the company become public knowledge. Raising management awareness of employee dissatisfaction is an important part of risk management. Careful reading of communications from employees, conversations with people at different levels of the company or constant monitoring of employee portals will help identify problems and allow the taking of remedial steps while the problem is still purely internal. Employers – especially in the midst of the coronavirus turmoil – sometimes tend to ignore signals and even deliberately suppress critical views from staff (which should come as no surprise given the current market environment). Such businesses should be aware that avoiding dialogue with employees can have disastrous consequences for the perception of the company in the marketplace. Thus, given the COVID situation, businesses should make sure to communicate openly with their staff, give everyone the opportunity to express their views (also anonymously) and keep staff regularly updated about the company’s situation, plans, strategy, challenges and proposed strategies. A lack of information breeds suspicion and speculation among employees, and these can easily find their way into the public arena unchecked, for example via social media.
Journalists have the right to ask
A common mistake among business people is the conviction that their company is a private affair with state-owned companies being the sole entities obliged to provide information to the media. Nothing could be further from the truth. According to press law, businesses and entities outside the public finance sector are also obliged to provide the press with information about their activities.
For this reason, every company, and even sole traders, should have procedures in place for dealing with the press, which is crucial to minimising the risk of an image crisis. A “no comment” reply or failure to answer a journalist’s questions can lead to a serious image crisis that could easily have been avoided. It is not uncommon for journalists to receive potentially damaging information about a business (e.g. from a disgruntled former employee) that is untrue. Timely clarification from the company, often shedding new light on the matter, can and often will protect the company from devastating press exposure.
Honesty pays off
An open and constructive approach to working with the press may not prevent a negative article from being published, but can help reduce its negative impact and thus mitigate reputational damage. The relationship with the author is also important. Deliberate attempts to attack a company in the media are rare, so we should rather presume that the journalist has a neutral stance and a professional approach, as journalists must, as it were, be objective. If the author of the material can see that the company is frank and ready to address even uncomfortable issues, they may be more likely to at least listen to its arguments. And paradoxically, an image crisis can pay off in the future through the chance to establish a good relationship with the journalist.
Do not leave calls unanswered
It is crucial to ensure easy contact and a rapid response time. A situation where your company cannot be reached for weeks via the phone number provided on its website is simply unacceptable with working in home office mode being no excuse. Landlines, if unmanned, should be programmed with call forwarding as the phone number and email address given on your website must always be responsive.
This will make all the difference. Journalists are not obliged to keep trying to establish contact until receiving a response – they are simply required to attempt such contact. If they call the number indicated on your website several times and send an email to your general contact email address without receiving any response, they are considered to have acted with the journalistic diligence and integrity required by law, and will avoid liability even if they publish false information. Why? Because they gave your company the opportunity to respond to allegations made against it. You are responsible for ensuring your position is accurately presented.
Ensure your employees know how to act
Developing adequate procedures to ensure that each employee knows how to respond when receiving a phone call from a journalist is fundamental to minimising the risk of an image crisis. Often, the first contact a journalist will make to a firm will not be to a spokesperson, communications director or manager, but rather a receptionist or security guard who may unwittingly provide information giving rise to an unflattering press release.
Journalists must never be allowed to conclude that your company is being evasive or has something to hide. Every employee should therefore be able to smoothly refer them to a competent contact person. Neither should journalists be kept unduly waiting. It is extremely important to respond quickly and smoothly, rather than sending journalists away empty-handed or saying that this falls “beyond the scope of professional duties”.
Situations that can lead to an image crisis cannot be predicted, especially during a pandemic. Employees trained in contacts with journalists will not be surprised or overly stressed if such a situation arises. Knowing how to act and respond when dealing with members of the press will ensure comfort for both the employee and journalist who will not get a feeling that your company is making things difficult from the very beginning.
Knowledge and awareness of how to behave in case of an image crisis and proper preparation of employees will allow your company to manage such a crisis efficiently and avoid long-term damaging effects. A well-managed crisis may even reinforce your company’s standing, proving it to be a fully-fledged and stable organisation despite an unfavourable environment with extra care being taken in uncertain times.