Cool, Calm and Collected: Responding to a PR Crisis

On October 4, 2018, Bloomberg Businessweek dropped an apparent bombshell in its article, “The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate U.S. Companies.” America’s technology supply chain had been compromised, with nearly 30 U.S. companies allegedly directly affected. (Only Amazon, Apple and Super Micro Computer, Inc. were named.)

Responses from Amazon, Apple and Supermicro have been swift, emphatic and persistent: “The report is untrue.” “We’re unaware of any such investigation.” “The article should be retracted.” “Show us the evidence.”

In his opinion piece in The Atlantic published two days after the initial report, Contributing Editor Ian Bogost declared: “Soon enough, as people start tearing down the Supermicro motherboards at the heart of the scandal, the world will learn whether the hack is a real crisis or a false alarm. But in some ways, it is a real crisis no matter the outcome.”

In the shadow cast by the report’s Klieg lights are hundreds of American supply chain companies who are not named publicly, but still need to assure their customers, partners and stakeholders that they are unaffected. To these companies, we offer the following tips, road-tested with tech companies over several decades, for how to deliver a clutch performance when in a near-miss crisis situation like this.

When you hear the first hints of disturbing news, you’ll need to quickly, yet thoroughly, research what’s included in the news. This includes distinguishing between rumor and fact. If it’s difficult to separate the two, then find at least one primary source to approach about rumors. This lessens your dependence on secondary sources, however credible.

You should simultaneously assess whom the news might affect. This includes identifying all potential individuals (e.g., partners, customers, supply chain, employees, others).

Many companies find it useful at this stage to pull together an ad hoc team of experts to consult with. The team typically consists of both internal and external participants with expertise in communications, legal requirements, technology, etc. Among the team’s tasks are brainstorming the possible effects of the news on the audiences you’ve listed. This team should also try to anticipate any potential concerns of each group or individual affected, so the correlating facts to assuage the fears can be assembled.

Because there are typically no one-size-fits-all answers, you’ll be most successful by identifying how and when those affected might respond to the news. The ideal is to anticipate questions before they can foment into concerns, and provide counterfacts to replace rumors before they blow out of proportion.

Once you’ve prepared the list of concerns and corresponding facts, it’s time to determine how much information each affected party needs to know, and when they should learn it. In general, there will be information to be communicated immediately. Additional information, especially if it’s initially incomplete or unsubstantiated, should be verified and fleshed out before it is communicated.

Carefully select the words for each communication. Choose words to convey sincerity, disclose facts and express commitment to the well-being of affected parties. For public companies, investor relations and legal advisors should be consulted at this point, to ensure messages are consistent with legal and SEC disclosure requirements.

The level of urgency and the number of individuals and their locations dictate the selection of communications’ vehicles. The choice is yours whether to use instant-messaging or a similar group-sharing platform, phone, email, social media, letter, op-ed, advertisement, etc.

Don’t forget to designate who will share the messages. This can be as important as the tone and the words in establishing credibility and managing expectations appropriately.

Finally, construct a timeline for ongoing communication. As we’ve seen from the alleged Chinese hack attack, the news was still making headlines three weeks after the initial story broke. Companies should prepare to communicate immediately (if appropriate) when initial reports become public, to follow up with periodic updates in parallel with attention-grabbing headlines as a crisis persists, and to send a final communication that proves the crisis will unlikely reoccur.

When a crisis threatens your company’s reputation, or hits as a near-miss within your ecosystem, look for inspiration from the athletic greats who’ve demonstrated over the years how to calmly handle pressure situations. Like Brandi Chastain’s left-footed PK that decided the final of the 1999 Women’s World Cup. Practice these tips, and you, too, can show you’re a clutch performer who can guide your company to desirable outcomes.

Tips for Clutch Performers:

  • Consult sources to separate rumor from fact
  • Identify who the news affects
  • Assemble ad hoc team of comms, legal, IR, tech experts
  • Anticipate possible effects
  • Craft factual messages conveying sincerity and commitment
  • Designate communicators
  • Select appropriate comms channels/platforms
  • Create timeline