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Don’t become the scapegoat when a crisis happens


Mark Siebert

In 1871, a single cow was blamed (many say in error) for causing a fire that killed some 300 people and destroyed most of the city of Chicago. Of course, the cow was not entirely at fault. Mrs. O’Leary could have taken better care of her lantern. An error by a watchman sent the firefighters to the wrong address. Another alarm sent to a nearby courthouse failed to register.  And, in the end, a small fire in a barn grew so fast it quickly overwhelmed Chicago’s undermanned fire department.       

While the fires in the franchise world generally cause less in the way of physical damage, in today’s digital world, they can spread even faster and be equally devastating to a brand. Franchisors have to act quickly and decisively in the face of adversity.

Clear the barn of clumsy cows                      

Despite continuous evolution in the franchising industry, few franchisors have mastered the art of crisis communications, or even achieved a decent understanding of what an intricate art it is. Between identifying a spokesperson, taking a stance, and crafting thoughtful responses, crisis management becomes a balancing act, and an unprepared business can sometimes end up adding fuel to the fire rather than helping a situation.

Immediate action, a firm position, and corrective measures to stop the proliferation of negative press—the formula for an effective crisis communications strategy—is fundamental to the preservation of a brand’s identity. Developing a thorough plan of action long before disaster strikes can go a long way in helping ensure a franchise emerges from the fire relatively unscathed.

Appoint a fire chief

In no time at all, a single incident can spark an uproar that demands cooperation across the entire organization to help ensure the best chance for recovery. The multiple layers of ownership and responsibility within the franchise model can also make it easy for a message to get lost or distorted.

So plan ahead. It’s essential to have a single point of contact and a playbook on how to swiftly respond to any allegations or serious issues.

For a franchise system, it’s imperative to communicate that plan to franchisees. Likewise, franchisors need to carefully protect the brand.

When a large franchise system goes through bankruptcy, for example, it’s almost inevitable that franchisees will face questions from media. One franchisor that recently went through filing Chapter 11 had issues with managing what franchisees were saying to several press outlets, in this case about a decline in support from the corporate office.

To avoid this, franchisors should invest in equipping a trained spokesperson with everything needed to reflect total transparency on behalf of the business. In the best scenario, a franchisee with knowledge of the local market and franchisor as chief of the system can work together to craft the perfect response.

The crisis management support franchisors provide franchisees can and should look different from system to system. While some franchisors offer a library of succinct messaging options, others offer training on media relations or even hire an agency whose recommendations comply with their corporate manual. But regardless of your strategy, it is important that you develop it before the match is struck.

Gas can or fire extinguisher?

There’s no doubt about social media’s power and influence in today’s world. But businesses unfortunately often find that social media can stoke the embers in times of crisis.

It’s in companies’ best interest to incorporate solid strategies for online reputation and social media management into their crisis plans.

Be sure to monitor social networks and review sites before, during and after any crisei. Have a crisp plan of what to say—and what not to say—to commenters.  Be sure you have put someone, either an internal hire or an agency, in charge of this vital task.

Set a backfire

Following the federal investigation of long-time spokesman Jared Fogle, Subway certainly began to feel the heat earlier this year. But the multi-billion-dollar system did not panic.  

Instead, they promptly addressed the issue by releasing an initial statement via social media, stating Subway no longer had a relationship with Jared and had no further comment.   Subway’s clear and timely statement is just one example of a crisis response plan in action.

To believe that, in a crisis, the questions will end with a decisive tweet or Facebook post would be wishful thinking. Inquiring reporters will want to get to the bottom of the story.  For most, maintaining objectivity will be their primary goal.

In order to manage that process, make room for franchisees with differing points of view to share their thoughts with reporters, but make sure they know that it is time to rally together.

Feigning unanimity or failing to consider alternative viewpoints often causes companies in crisis to make hasty decisions—tamping the blaze only until the next strong wind resurrects it. In doing what they can to influence all sides of the message, franchisors can show respect for the role of the media without buckling under pressure.

The silver lining? Society will almost always forgive. Most crises will fade to the background when handled promptly and decisively.  And the brand can rise from the ashes, just as Chicago did, stronger for the experience.

Mark Siebert is CEO of the iFranchise Group, a consulting firm that has worked with 98 of the nation’s top 200 franchises. Reach him at (708) 957-2300 or info@ifranchisegroup.com.

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