Each of us is vulnerable to suffering a reputational crisis — some more than others. Regardless of the type of law you practice or the environment in which you work, crises are always lurking. But how do you know if and when you are prone? Simple. Pay attention to the warning signs and respond or plan appropriately.
Just as you should slow down on the road if you see a "Dangerous Curve Ahead" sign, you should look for the figurative danger signals at work. I will first explain what a warning sign is and then I will share how to look for your or your clients' warning signs. Finally, I will go over a couple of recent items in the news and analyze where and how the warning signs were missed and thus caused significant reputational and operational disaster. I'll explain how paying attention to the signs could have prevented the crises.
Warning signs are any self- or externally-caused situations that, if ignored, could lead to a crisis.
Identifying warning signs is critical to preventing crises. If any of the following warning signs pertain to you or your organization, take note and be prepared to act or respond before the situation escalates:
• An incident or matter at your office attracts unwanted media attention and chatter on the Internet.
• A situation jeopardizes public safety and/or came to the attention of law enforcement.
• Something causes a significant work delay or stoppage, whether through egregious management behavior or something that cannot be controlled (e.g., the weather).
• If you are publicly held and your share price is dropping suddenly.
• A large group of employees leave en masse.
• Litigation is pending.
• You become aware of a government or regulatory investigation.
• Significant turnover occurs in your company's management ranks.
• You learn of rumors swirling around about your organization.
The good news is that there are strategies that enable you to look for and recognize warning signs before it is too late to prevent them from worsening. The most common tool is the vulnerability audit. It is vital for an unbiased and independent expert or team to assess the vulnerabilities of your firm or organization to uncover the areas of operational and communications weaknesses and to identify potential solutions. The audit will look at every department and ask what could cause significant disruptions or reputational damage.
Some typical audit questions include: If your business was unavailable starting tonight and you had no advance warning, where would everyone go to work and how would you conduct business remotely? How will you retrieve contact information for all important audiences, including employees, customers, clients and others, if all of your data is stolen or corrupted?
In addition to the interview process, an internal document audit is also undertaken. This entails reviewing your company's crisis management plan, crisis communication plan, emergency response policies, HR policies and other policies that govern your organization.
An external communications audit is also important to execute. This includes reviewing news articles written about the organization, analyst reports, polls, peer media coverage, customer call logs, blogs, websites, chat rooms, listservs, activist activities, Google searches, lawsuits, public records, social media posts and the comments sections of news articles. Take a close look at what is being said about you, whether it is true or not. Remember, perception is reality if you ignore the warning signs.
By now, everybody is aware that celebrity chef Paula Deen acknowledged in a lawsuit deposition in May that she used an ugly racial epithet in the past. But was her internal public relations team aware much before the rest of us learned? Eventually, the public (through the National Enquirer) came to learn. It appears that Deen and whomever is responsible for her reputation did not heed the warning signs (a former employee's lawsuit and Deen's admission) in order to prepare for what they should have realized would soon become a media maelstrom. Whether it be a sincere apology or an explanation that somehow passed the smell test, Deen has failed miserably to date at repairing her severely damaged reputation and brand.
On June 5, six people were killed as a result of the collapse of two Center City buildings on Market Street under active demolition. This tragedy appeared to have been preventable. Reportedly, multiple phone calls and emails were logged in the city of Philadelphia's 311 website a month before the collapse. And the demolition contractor has unpaid taxes and carries a criminal record, which may not have legally prevented him from obtaining the proper licenses and permits, but at least arguably should have caused all of those charged with oversight on the demolition to pause and at least consider his integrity to complete the job safely and abide by all proper standards.
What are the warning signs at your organization? Have you ever sat down with your colleagues to carefully assess your vulnerabilities? Be glad it's not too late. Don't let the warning signs at your firm, organization or clients go unheeded. Take care of them now so we don't hear about them later.
Jeff Jubelirer is the principal of Jubelirer Strategies. He leads the development and execution of all aspects of its clients' strategic communications programs, including media relations, issue and crisis management and community relations. He also is an adjunct professor in crisis communication at Temple University.