Part 1: Be Prepared in a Time of Crisis

Why a crisis communications plan should be a key part of your business

By Jeff Lake, APR

I have developed a deep admiration and respect for compa-nies that, when faced with serious issues, commit to open communications to protect their brand. When seven people died from ingesting cyanide-laden Extra Strength Tylenol, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson invited CBS 60 Minutes’ reporter Mike Wallace into a boardroom meeting where they were discussing the future of the brand. The company pulled 31 million bottles of tablets off of retailer shelves, and introduced tamper-proof safety measures to pro-tect consumers. Tylenol remains the number one pain medica-tion sold in North America.In the summer of 2008, there were 57 confirmed cases of liste-riosis, resulting in 23 deaths linked to cold cuts from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto. President and CEO Michael McCain said in his televised apology, “It’s not about money or legal liability; this is about our being accountable for providing consumers with safe food. This is a terrible tragedy. To those people who have become ill, and to the families who have lost loved ones, I want to express my deepest and most sincere sympathies. Words cannot begin to express our sadness for your pain.”McCain was the face and voice of this crisis for Maple Leaf, and he is hailed for the way he accepted the company’s responsibili-ties and for the transparent way he communicated with media and consumers. Like Tylenol, Maple Leaf has implemented strin-gent food safety measures to protect consumers as best as pos-sible. Maple Leaf Foods’ crisis communications is widely cited as the gold standard for other companies to follow.

Why does a franchise need a crisis communications plan?

If your franchise has ever gone through a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger requiring difficult or important decisions to be made, you know what it’s like to go through a crisis. It’s definitely not fun.

And when a crisis hits, it’s no time to be asking, “What do we do now?”

If you don’t know what to do, immediately contact your public relations agency so you can have a professional team onside to help you manage your crisis communications.

If you are part of a major multinational franchise, or even a small company with three franchises, implementing a crisis com-munications plan early on will play a key role in protecting and restoring faith in your brand when an issue strikes. We live in an ultra-connected world, where an offensive story or photo can reach millions of people around the globe in minutes.

Franchises are linked in a unique way: each unit is accountable for the other, and that goes for every location to every employee, from the CEO at head office, down to the part-time staff. Franchises are only as strong as their weakest link. So, if a couple of rogue employees decide to post videos wherein they willfully contami-nate fast food before it goes to a customer, or leak videos to media of fresh meat being stored beside a dumpster, their act will have a direct impact on all of the good franchisees under your brand who run exemplary businesses that follow best practices to the letter.Today’s reality is an online world can wreak havoc on a brand, which is why speed, honesty, and having a plan you can execute are all central to an effective crisis communications program. Even one statement taken out of context or made by an employee at the crisis scene can have a devastating impact on a brand’s bottom line.And then there’s an even bigger game changer – social media. Everyone with a smartphone has the ability to send a video or photograph which could end up being seen by millions of consum-ers around the world in an instant.This is why the entire company, not just the communications staff, must be ready for a crisis. Being prepared means creating a crisis communications team that will manage the development and implementation of a crisis communications plan.

What are the components of a crisis communications plan?

A successful crisis communications response for franchises relays the right key messages to all stakeholders as quickly as possible. This can be problematic at times if your legal counsel insists on issuing a terse “no comment” to media or stakeholder inquiries. This isn’t the time to remain silent. I much prefer franchises that take charge and have a bias for action during a crisis. This means assuming a leadership position. Case study after case study shows companies that take a proac-tive approach to crisis communications have better outcomes than those that hide from the public and media, or worse, take a hostile or defensive approach to communications.

Here are “3Rs” to remember:

Responsibility. Whether the problem is a franchisee’s fault or not, take responsibility for solving it. Your ac-tions will reinforce your words and demonstrate your honesty and commitment to consumers and your brand. The key element here is your determination to address and solve the issue, not necessarily accepting responsibility for the underlying cause.

Regret. Even if it is not your fault, express regret that the problem has developed. This can be achieved with-out sacrificing any legal rights.

Response. Timing is extremely important. Your em-ployees, media, customers, and the general public must know you are taking steps to deal with the issue and working hard to ensure it will not be repeated.

Always remember it is the first public statements given within the first 24 hours that will receive the most media coverage. So, when to start developing your plan?The best time for franchises to begin setting up their crisis com-munications response teams and developing a crisis communica-tions plan is during a time when senior management can be pulled together without interference.Here are some questions to consider when forming a crisis com-munications team:

  • What will individual roles be?
  • Who will be the crisis communications team leader?
  • Who is the best spokesperson?
  • Who will manage media communications?
  • Who will manage internal communications?
  • Who will monitor the news?
  • Who will develop key messages and a holding statement?
  • Who will manage the flow and distribution of information?
  • How do you manage false reports about the crisis?• Who should issue updated media statements?
  • What role does legal counsel have?
  • Besides media, who do you need to contact? (e.g. medical authorities, police, elected officials, or government departments?)

Once the crisis communications team has been formed, it’s now time for the team to look at potential crises that could affect your franchise, including:

  • food poisoning
  • mistreatment of customers
  • workplace violence or harassment
  • employee with disease
  • unsanitary conditions
  • corrupt employees
  • shoddy workmanship
  • layoffs
  • sexual harassment
  • franchisor/franchisee relations
  • controversial advertising
  • employee strikes
  • robbery or burglary
  • customer lawsuits
  • accidental death
  • protests or demonstrations

This is now the best time for the communications professionals to step in and assist franchise systems and franchisees with devel-oping a crisis communications plan. The process can take a month for smaller franchises and several months for large multi-unit fran-chises, because of the level of detail and information required. A professional crisis communications plan will establish a proper protocol to follow and will be of particular help to companies in managing the crucial early days of a crisis. We always recommend holding a mock crisis to ensure everyone is aware of their responsi-bilities and to determine the areas that need to be improved. A crisis communications plan will prove to be an invaluable resource for franchises that may be operating without a plan in place today, which would be similar to driving without insurance.



Jeff Lake is Managing Partner of PUNCH Canada, a Toronto-based public relations agency specializing in franchise communications. Jeff has been making news for his clients for the past 30 years. He has provided crisis communications counsel and crisis communications training for major companies and governments across Canada. Jeff has won two CPRS Awards of Excellence. He can be reached at and 647-837-1264.