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Apr 17, 2001
How To

Crisis Communications: How to Prevent Your Company From Getting Burned by Ex-Employee Emails

SUMMARY: When bad things happen to good companies - lay-offs, product failures, negative publicity - your corporate communications or PR department has to be prepared to act quickly to stem the tide of bad news, and spin the story to a happier one. Yes, you can do it. Here are some practical tactics.
Last week more than 300 business partners of content syndication firm iSyndicate received a email from an executive the Company had just laid off. He wanted to sound the alarm that he felt the Company was in trouble, and oh by the way, could anyone offer him a job? Copies of his email then spread throughout the content industry virally as alarmed recipients forwarded it to friends and colleagues. (We received no fewer than seven copies here.) Within 48 hours iSyndicate reacted by sending the original list of recipients a soothing note. However, the Company had already suffered at least short-term damage to its image in the content business.

Can you avoid a similar online PR crisis? Ruder Finn's Rowland Hobbs, who specializes in online marketing and PR for companies going through change, says, "Lock up your data as best as you can, but prevention is very, very difficult. At the end of the day it's going to be impossible to stop information (such as client or partner email lists) from getting into somebody's hands who may abuse it. It's not secure if you can print it out."

That's why Hobbs recommends the following steps for every company that might have unhappy employees (or ex-employees):

- Prepare Your Email Lists: Make sure you have current and accurate email lists of all the audiences who matter to you -- including key stakeholders, clients, partners, employees and the media -- so you can respond quickly and effectively if ugly rumors surface.

- Don't Overreact: If something is just posted on a message board or on a rumor site such as F---dCompany, it may not necessitate a response to everyone on your lists. You don't want to give gossip credence by overreacting to it.

- Quickly and Thoroughly Communicate Internally: Employees who sense something is going on, but who don't have all the details, are more likely to email gossip, rumors and worries to colleagues ... and to the outside world. These days there is no time for trickle-down news, or for managers to pull in staff for personal chats one-by-one. Be prepared to tell everyone about changes at once, and to explain things thoroughly. Then you can follow-up with the one-on-one if necessary.

- Respond to Emails Within 24 Hours: If a potentially damaging email has been sent to one of your audiences, you should send a soothing and explanatory note to that group within 24 hours. The sender should be the person in your company that the audience feels has the most personal credibility and ties to them. In some cases this may be your CEO, in some cases sales or customer service representatives might contact their own accounts.

- Track Email Response: Use a sophisticated email service that can track the open-rate, click through rates to your Web site, and pass-along rates of the email you've sent out. You may find out that something you thought was a crisis, was a ho-hum to the outside world. Or some topics may get more attention than you expected.

These results will tell you how to make your next move, such as informing the press, or never mentioning the topic again.
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