For some people, a crisis is a train cancellation or lost passport. For others, it is something more serious. However, in business, a crisis can destroy a company’s reputation in the blink of an eye – if it isn’t managed as it should be.
Tom Curtin, founder of Curtin & Co, an agency specialising in reputation management and crisis preparation, drums this message into each and every one of his clients. Having previously plied his trade as a business journalist – before going on to work for Thames Water as chief press officer – Curtin knows how it feels to come under fire from all sides. “The company had been under a huge attack because of the privatisation,” says Curtin, reflecting on his time at Thames Water. “People forgot what the company was about: supplying water and sewage services.”
With these experiences behind him, Curtin decided in 2009 that the time was nigh to go his own way. Five years later – and with a team of 20 ex-journalists and ex-politicians on board – Curtin & Co is proving a fairly useful resource for firms that are precious about their reputation, of which there are a fair few. The company’s work begins from a simple premise, one that has been touched upon above. “We start by saying ‘when is your reputation as a brand or as a company most at risk?’” says Curtin. “And it is most at risk when you are under attack or in a crisis.”
A decent way of preparing anyone for a crisis is by throwing them into one and seeing how they fare, he adds.
“We do a very realistic crisis simulation for companies where we actually put them under huge stress with microphones stuck at them and Twitter feeds coming through every 15 seconds in real time,” says Curtin. “We have journalists turn up, we have news bulletins and we video and record everything. We then sit down and say ‘what are the chinks in your procedure?’, ‘what has gone wrong?’, ‘how come it took you two hours to get out even a simple statement when Twitter is bleeping away every single second?’”
Speed is very much of the essence when it comes to crisis management. Equally though, it is about putting procedures in place far in advance of a sticky situation arising. “In today’s world, your methods for communication need to be superfast,” says Curtin. “You don’t have time to sit around while the lawyers look over a simple three-line statement. You need to prepare these statements in advance and have them on the shelf so that when something hits you, you are ready to say something.”
As Curtin stresses, simplicity goes hand-in-hand with a rapid response. “If I see a crisis management manual which is 200 pages long, it is a waste of time,” he says. “You have got to have very simple checklists and templates all ready to go so that you can spring into action at a moment’s notice.”
Bracing for the worst is an uncomfortable undertaking for any enterprise, but living in denial is a dangerous game indeed. A failure to accept that disaster could be lurking just around the corner can ultimately prove catastrophic. “I think there is a huge complacency, particularly among more medium-sized companies,” comments Curtin. “There is a certain amount of ‘this could never happen to us,’ but it happens every day. You have to be prepared. Sit down with your management team and say ‘what is the worst that could happen to us?’, ‘how are we prepared for it?’ – and then test it.”
Curtin also points to a common school of thought among SMEs and start-ups that says ‘we are so small, we will always be under the radar.’ Such a belief seems redundant in an age when the internet has become ubiquitous. If anything, the need for businesses to be on their toes has never been greater. “The problem with cyberspace, and it is a huge problem, is that nothing dies,” says Curtin. “Everything lives forever. You cannot shred cyberspace as you could in the old days, so you have to be very careful with information.”
It won’t have escaped most people’s attention that social media has become as much of a graveyard for brands as it has for celebrities in recent years. Each and every tweet or post is shared within seconds, and screenshots are taken if it is controversial enough to be deemed newsworthy. Deleting a comment is, in the majority of cases, too little too late. Thus there is much to be said for taking a step back and considering the impact, or perception, of those 140 characters before sending them into the digital ether. “You are sending out a press release with a tweet so if you are not happy putting the words ‘press release’ on top of a tweet, don’t press send,” says Curtin. “Particularly when your reputation is at stake, you are as good as your last bad tweet.”
Sound preparation can therefore help alleviate the possibility of an ill-informed tweet or misplaced USB stick becoming a full-blown crisis. “When you get into crisis mode, it is very hard to get out of it,” Curtin adds. “It is like a boxer on the ropes. Things go wrong. They keep on going wrong. The best thing to do is not to get into that spiral but to get it right from the very start.”
Putting in the groundwork from the outset can therefore go a long way to ensuring that one’s reputation is maintained, or even enhanced, in the face of something that could otherwise tarnish it.
As Curtin concludes: “You have only got one reputation. Lose it once and you might never get it back.”