Many small businesses do not have the budget to hire a Public Relations (PR) person to help them with earned media placements. Earned media placements are news stories written by a third-party and are not paid for, as opposed to a purchased ad or paid editorial. While this generally doesn’t pose a problem, it can be if a crisis emerges.

What’s a crisis? Anything that harms customers and will bring long-term negative attention to your business. Small businesses are more vulnerable to crisis than larger corporations, mainly because they don’t prepare for them.

Here are some questions you should ask yourself:

  • What are the things that could affect my customers? If you’re in the food business, for example, a purchased ingredient could cause food poisoning. If you’re in the home service business, you’re at the mercy of those who visit your clients’ homes. What if something is installed wrong and causes a fire? What if a worker steals from someone? What if a worker causes an accident while on a job?
  • What do I need to do to prevent these things from happening? Prevent these possibilities where you can. Train drivers not to use their phones when driving. Create a checklist to ensure things are installed correctly. Implement immediate consequences for theft, harassment, etc.
  • Who will speak on our behalf if we do have an issue arise? Identify a person who is calm under pressure and knows your processes. It doesn’t always have to be the head of the company—in extremely emotional situations it’s easy to get defensive. A second-in-command can be just as effective at telling the company’s story.
  • How will my staff know what to do if I’m unavailable? If you’re on that Bermuda cruise and unreachable, where can your team find your crisis plan? Make sure it’s written down somewhere and easy to access.

So you got a call from the media that something happened. Now what?

  • Don’t evade the media. While the hope is that your employees let you know about issues before the media, it’s not always the case. A good initial response to media is to let them know that you are in the process of gathering the facts. Take down their name, number and be aware of their deadline.
  • Gather the facts. Find out exactly what happened. Ask your team how the people affected might describe the situation. Try to figure out the timeline and the sequence of the event. Was it preventable? Was it purposeful? How many people were affected?
  • Show concern for those affected. If possible, reach out to those affected and share your concern. Also tell them what you are doing to remedy the situation.
  • Return the media’s call. If you need to, draft a statement, but do not ignore the media. You have an opportunity to help shape the story they tell and you can’t do that by avoiding them. They control the narrative when you don’t reply.
  • Monitor social media channels. Keep an eye out for social media posts, such as Yelp, Facebook or Twitter. Hopefully you already have someone assigned to help you monitor what is being said about you. Respond where it’s appropriate. Let people know what you are doing to resolve the issue. Crisis is not a good time to go silent.
  • Hire counsel if necessary. Sometimes it’s necessary to invest in an attorney to help you navigate a big issue. Know who you will reach out to before you need them. A crisis is not the time to begin your search; have some contacts already available, just in case.
  • Also know when you need professional PR help. See bullet above.

While you can’t always prevent a crisis, you can at least plan for one and have a good idea of what you will do. As General Eisenhower once said, “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”