Crisis Management 101 for Your Small Business

Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS), BP (NYSE:BP) and Tiger Woods -- what do these three newsmakers have in common? Crises that grabbed media headlines across the country and were subsequently handled by their media professionals.

Although your small business may not be in the national spotlight or have a public relations guru of its own to consult, no company is too small for a crisis. From bankruptcy to disgruntled customers or employees seeking revenge, even a mom-and-pop should be prepared to handle a media blitz with the fundamentals of crisis management.

Cindy Rakowitz, co-author of the book Emergency Public Relations: Crisis Management in a 3.0 World, also written by Alan B. Bernstein, said small businesses often don’t realize they are facing a potential crisis until they are already in too deep, risking their credibility and support.

“Small businesses or sole proprietors won’t call us until they’re on a ledge,” Rakowitz said. “It’s not until they realize that something really bad has happened.”

While this lack of planning isn’t intentional, it certainly is common, she said. Just like couples who marry without prenuptial agreements or those who chose not to plan their estates, businesses that are unprepared often face consequences that could have been easily prevented, Rakowitz said.

“They wish for the best and hope that nothing happens,” she said. “So many times, a person will walk outside into a ‘crisis’ situation with the media, and they look like a deer in the headlights because they have no preparation for this.”

Here are the five fundamentals Rakowitz said every small business should practice in order to be prepared for a potential crisis of any measure.

No. 1: Define your core values. No matter how small your business is, Rakowitz said determining your set of core values is key, and can potentially save you in a crisis situation.

“If a crisis takes place, at least you know what your core values and vision are, and know it was always your intention to run the business ethically,” she said. “If your first platform is wanting to do good in the community, and something goes wrong, you will have allies and constituents [to support you].”

No. 2: Ability to collaborate. Build relationships and share the core values you have determined for your company, Rakowitz said. Knowing who your local police and fire departments are, and working well with schools and community centers can go a long way, especially if you get into hot water.

No. 3: Write your mission statement. Rakowitz said this tip is all about planning and acting in an ethical manner, in order to gain trust from those around you.

“If you do get into trouble and have press calling you to ask about what happened, you can cite your mission statement at the very least,” Rakowitz said. “You have a context from which you can create talking points. This way if the media is at your door, you won’t be a deer in the headlights.”

No. 4: Know your audience. In advance, list out your ‘audience’ or those you would have to alert or explain things to if a crisis were to take place. Have these lists ready to go so you can act in a moment’s notice.

“Rather than people reading in the newspaper that you are going bankrupt and thinking you are closing down,” Rakowitz said, “you can write a letter saying you are not shutting your doors, but are reorganizing and bankruptcy is allowing you to do this for your business.”

No. 5: Learn social media. There is no faster way to spread news than on social media today, and being savvy in this line of communication is key for small business owners to manage their own reputations, Rakowitz said.