Response from the top will determine whether your company suffers permanent PR damage from a crisis, or moves ahead positively.

By Hinda Mitchell

At a time of crisis, companies react in very different ways. Some will choose the "head-in-the-sand" approach, believing that ducking all inquiries and hoping the crisis passes is the best way to manage through it.

Others will "lawyer up." Believing that there is no benefit to speaking on their own behalf, or fearing the possibility of litigation, companies often will defer all requests for information to their attorney for comment.

There are other responses, as well. There is the company that gets defensive and outraged, the one that does blame-shifting and suggests the crisis is not their fault at all, or the one that plays the victim and believes the crisis, in fact, has hurt them. Still others will wait until the crisis is well underway before engaging with their stakeholders, and by then it's likely too late.

There are countless examples of all these scenarios. While each may take the company in a slightly different direction, all have one thing in common: They leave a wide door open for others to define the business (and its response) at the time of the crisis.

In the short term, this approach may be detrimental to getting the crisis successfully resolved. In the long term, this approach can have significant, and sometimes irreparable, reputational impact on the company itself.

In a crisis, stakeholders are seeking information. From the media to regulators, from customers to the public, everyone wants to know, and they'd prefer to know NOW. An absence of solid, transparent information from the company directly involved in the crisis provides a void that can – and, more importantly, will – be filled by others.

That gap then becomes the source from which a company's stakeholders learn about the crisis; and it is there that the cycle begins. As the gap fills with information that is, at best, misleading, or, at worst, inaccurate, the company in crisis begins to be defined by what is being said by others.

A better solution for companies facing a crisis is to be forthright and transparent and to act swiftly to begin to shape the conversation. This does not necessarily mean sharing everything that is known.

Some key considerations when crafting a crisis response include:

Engage quickly – even if full details are not yet available. This will establish the company spokesperson as the go-to resource in the crisis and demonstrate the company's willingness to communicate. Use emotion judiciously – if at all. While it is critical to not come off as cold or uncaring, it is also equally important to be calm and professional, balanced with concern and authenticity. Provide facts as they become available – but don't overshare. Maintain a steady drumbeat of brief and regular updates to keep stakeholders returning to the company for relevant, timely information.

Devoting time and resources in developing a comprehensive crisis response protocol is a wise investment for all businesses and is a smart tool in ensuring companies are positioned to define themselves when crisis strikes.

Hinda Mitchell is the president of Inspire PR Group, a public relations firm headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. She is a recognized advisor to national corporations and organizations in crisis preparedness and management. She can be reached at 614.537.8926 or via email hinda@inspireprgroup.com.