A Franchise in Crisis

 

Franchise Crisis

Franchise owners and operators should develop crisis communications

and preparation strategies before they actually need them.

By Bill Corbett Jr.

Food poisoning, accidents, hurricanes, power outages, poor customer service, employee theft, cyber attacks or a spokesperson getting arrested – these are all crises that franchise companies and individual franchisees have faced. Recognizing this, it is critical to ask: Are owners and communications teams fully prepared?

 

Most franchisors recognize that crises will occur and so they develop plans and procedures to effectively manage them. These plans are in the materials provided to new franchise owners during the onboarding process. However, crisis preparedness is often shelved. This inattention leaves a void that could allow a small event to cause catastrophic damage to a brand or even result in total loss of an investment.

A franchisee’s plan for managing a crisis and communicating with clients, customers, the media, the master franchiser, employees, attorneys and vendors must be created before doors open on day one.

Regardless of the type of franchise – be it foodservice, pest extermination, home cleaning or any other – franchise owners must acknowledge events that could potentially spur a lot of negative media stories. For example, a pest extermination franchise must be ready for negative stories about chemical and pesticide exposure. A home cleaning service might have an employee accused of stealing who gets in the news. A foodservice franchise might have an event related to health and food safety that gives rise to public concern.

A franchise must also consider its geographic location, especially when in a region vulnerable to hurricanes, blizzards or floods. There is also the human factor: arson/fire, injuries, on-the-job fatalities, fights, shootings, truck or car accidents, robberies, sexual harassment and embezzlement. Any of those can open the door for negative media coverage, angry customers and confused employees. Having a franchise brandname dragged thought the mud of negative news for days or weeks harms every operator within a system.

One of the key elements of crisis communications is developing goodwill in the local communities and with members of the media before any crisis happens. When a franchise and its owners have a good reputation and are seen as good neighbors who support charities and participate in the business community, local leaders and customers will likely be much more likely be supportive during a crisis. With a positive ongoing relationship with media outlets, owners have a better opportunity to share their side of a story. This can limit negative media coverage or at least provide balance to the story.

The Crisis Plan

Crafting a crisis communications plan is similar to preparing for a storm that is certain to arrive. What should be in a crisis communications plan? It should:

  • Create procedures to follow in a crisis situation, and clearly state how communication within the organization is to take place and who is responsible.
  • Identify who will act as spokesperson and who is permitted to communicate with the media.
  • Educate employees and let them know that they have role to play and must recognize that their jobs and careers are potentially at risk when a crisis is not managed effectively.
  • Include procedures for what to do if a crisis strikes on a weekend, at night or during holidays. Consider power outages, no internet access, email server problems or no cell phone coverage.

The stakeholders should have these documents on hand:

  • Lists and contact information for key management, staff, employees, the franchisor, vendors, local authorities and members of the media;
  • A backgrounder with up-to-date vital information about the franchise and its positive economic impact on the community, employees and customers;
  • Ownership biographies and franchise history; and
  • Positive media coverage and client testimonials.

There are a couple of additional factors to remember. First, have a copy of the crisis plan, critical information and key contact information on a thumb drive, accessible with a smart phone and in hard copy. Keep copies of the plan and critical information on site, at the owner’s home and with key management. Having this information on hand will allow the franchise owner to communicate on-site or remotely.

Second, staff is expected to partake in training and periodic reviews of the crisis plan and its communications components. When bad news breaks the media will come knocking. Managers and staff must understand policies and procedures for communicating with the media. Staff members must be trained on what questions to ask the media and how to respond when media arrives on-site.

It is always best to assess each situation before members of the media are invited into a location or granted interviews. It’s imperative to remain positive and provide information to the media in a timely manner but only when accurate information is confirmed.    

Here is what to say and do when the media calls or shows up unannounced:

  • Accurately write down the member of the media’s name, email address, cell phone number and name of their outlet. The individual who is taking down information must make it clear to the media that they can only write down questions and cannot provide any comments or responses. They will pass the questions on to the owner or communications team.
  • Ask the media if they have a deadline.
  • Even if asked the same question multiple times, always remain cordial and never say “no comment.” Assure them that they will receive a response.
  • Never force reporters or camera people out of buildings or off properties. Ask them politely to leave and assure them that they will get a response. This may require patience and time.
  • Prepare staff and remind them to follow franchise policy.

Owners and teams must conduct training and review policies regularly to enhance preparedness.

Plans might not be perfect. However, with a plan, procedures and training, the ability to weather the negative impact of a crisis becomes manageable. Uncertainty and stress are reduced, which allows those responsible for dealing with the situation to focus on it, address it and look to the future.

Bill Corbett Jr. is president of Corbett Public Relations and creator of Grow Your Personal Brand. Corbett has managed crisis communications for franchises, businesses and nonprofit clients.

 

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