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Ragan Communication’s annual Employee Communications, PR, and Social Media Summit brings together top communicators and strategists from across North America to lead a dynamic and informative multi-day event. In this three-part series, our team analyzed the trends, milestones and issues that are influencing the rapidly changing landscape of corporate communications. To wrap up the series, Weber Shandwick Seattle’s Katie Al-Khoury reviews top tips for regaining control of your corporate narrative during a crisis.

The second day of the 6th Annual Employee Communications, PR and Social Media Summit featured an in-depth case study of Lehigh University’s management of a multi-year issue (or what we at Weber Shandwick call an “ooze”). Jordan Reese, the university’s director of media relations, shared his experience of the highs, lows and challenges of shepherding the university through a complex crisis situation and striving to maintain control of the institution’s story and reputation.

Stressing that in a crisis, “you’re dealing with perception — not reality — a lot of the time,” Reese identified a few key recommendations for managing reputation and retaking control of the narrative.

Use your organizational knowledge

A crisis doesn’t occur in a vacuum, so familiarity with the climate of conversation around your company, both past and present, is an important piece of understanding the pitfalls and opportunities as you enter a crisis. “It takes organizational knowledge to know where the risks reside,” Reese said. From the sensitive topics in your industry to issues your company has faced in the past and how you’re perceived by each of your key audiences, there is a unique context to every crisis. Understanding your context can inform how you structure your messaging and perceive the media triggers that may spark a resurgence of coverage.

Use your people

According to Reese, “Narratives are the only way to change minds, and perception, of a reluctant audience.” Keeping in mind that the core of any company is its people, find out what actions are already being taken to right the wrong. Identifying strong instances of initiatives for improvement and positive behavior can help deflect criticism and rebuild your story. The sooner you can identify what’s being done to right the situation and make improvements for the future, the sooner you can shift the conversation to how you’re showing positive change. Just remember to allot the appropriate time for change to take effect, Reese advised, because institutional shifts don’t happen overnight.

Use your channels

“Social media is a crisis game changer,” Reese said, noting that today’s digital age demands transparency and swift action like never before. But used as a microphone and a loudspeaker, it can be a powerful tool for regaining control of your narrative — both because it has less of a ring of institutionalism and because, depending on the crisis, it’s likely to be where all your customers are talking anyway. Strong visuals, such as good photography and video, can also strengthen your story and will always be more compelling than a run-of-the-mill statement.

For more key learnings from the Employee Communications Summit, be sure to check out Shevaun Brown’s post on executive communications and Corinne Long’s look at the use of mobile for employee engagement.

Image courtesy of Tal Bright.

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