What a business owner does – or does not do – during and after a crisis is paramount and decisive in terms of survival.
A discrimination suit of any kind – gender, sexual, racial, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, etc. – is one of the many vulnerabilities a business entity may encounter and one that can potentially – and quickly – turn into a public relations nightmare.
A media-savvy plaintiff’s attorney or an irate employee or consumer turning to social media can add a public relations challenge to the already grueling legal battle ahead. How both are handled can dramatically make a difference in how a brand survives the aftermath.
To counteract this, businesses need to be armed not only with strong legal counsel, but also trusted and experienced public relations counsel with sophisticated digital tools to monitor traditional and social media in real time.
For many business leaders, a discrimination charge takes them by surprise. While company leaders may understand cultural diversity and follow proper human resources procedures, any business is only as strong as its weakest employee. That means if a supervisor or manager uses improper and/or discriminatory language – or turns a blind eye to other employees doing so – or treats employees in a manner that is not fair, equal and respectful, your brand can be jeopardized and judged solely on that one employee’s actions.
A business owner may instinctively want to fight it out in court if strongly convinced that the company has been unfairly accused of discrimination and has followed all proper procedures. Many attorneys also may advise to fight it out in court, without taking into consideration the potential damage and cost of lost brand equity. Confidence of innocence does not guarantee winning in court or winning back brand equity. It may be engaging in a no-win situation.
Equally, many business owners who feel strongly they have been wrongly accused will circle the wagons and “go dark” – not responding to either traditional or social media – hoping to ride out the storm stemming from a discrimination suit. Maybe even worse are those who go rogue without professional public relations counsel or a crisis communications plan in place and start fighting back through media channels. Both methods are bound to backfire.
While the legal battle is going on in court, the real fight is for the hearts and minds of consumers. Negative press and social media can evoke emotional responses that severely damages brand equity and ultimately the company’s bottom line. A well-orchestrated media attack on a brand involving such allegations creates a scenario where a decision has to be made: is it a legal battle to be fought out in the courts or is it a battle to be fought in the court of public opinion?
How the legal battle is handled can greatly affect the public relations outcome. And how the public relations battle is handled will greatly affect brand equity.
A consumer brand can measure its losses in several ways: cancellation of orders or sales; loss of customers or clients; and employee resignations. In today’s digital world where information flows virally over social media, the damage to brand equity that a company may have spent millions upon millions of dollars developing through advertising and public relations campaigns, can be swiftly destroyed by one bad news article or the sharing of content on social media platforms.
Unfortunately, oftentimes, it’s not about right and wrong or integrity or lack thereof. The loss of brand equity and revenues may require the difficult decision to cut losses and settle. It can become a mathematical equation of profit versus loss. Even if a cost-benefit conclusion is made to settle, the recovery from damage to the brand can be permanent or take years to rebuild.
Things to consider:
- Clearly, with all businesses – from a small start-up or nonprofit to a multinational publicly traded corporation – having your legal ducks in order, a la an employee handbook with a zero-tolerance policy, ongoing sensitivity training, well-documented human resources policies, procedures and practices are a given.
- In addition to stringent HR policies reflective of today’s diverse workforce, businesses also should have skilled legal counsel and trusted and knowledgeable public relations counsel with sophisticated digital tools on hand to monitor traditional and social media in real time.
- Check your insurance. It is a wise investment to insure the costs not only for legal, but public relations counsel.
- Every business entity should develop with its experienced public relations counsel a well-thought crisis communications plan before a crisis. The plan should not only identify who responds to consumers and media, but should also have key messages to manage the dialogue between the media, consumers and the company. Your crisis communications team should be prepared to respond and communicate quickly, from employee and community relations to news media messaging and managing social media and website communications.
- The plan should answer questions such as: How and when do you respond to radio, television and newspaper reporters in the midst of a crisis? When your social media presence becomes a battleground between your company and consumers, how do you react? How do you build and strengthen your presence in the community and how do you communicate with it in times of crises?
What a business owner does – or does not do – during and after a crisis is paramount and decisive in terms of survival. Having a plan in place before hand and having experienced public relations and legal counsel will help alleviate damage to the reputation of the business and its people as well as the company balance sheet.