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Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst: Staying Calm in a Crisis

By Nancy Drexler and Sam Neuman

What's the worst that could happen? It's not only a rhetorical question. High-profile public relations disasters have recently plagued major companies from Enron and WorldCom to Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. As the recent CardSystems Solutions Inc. data compromise proves, our industry is far from immune.

Most of us plan for success and sustained financial growth. We track our projected earnings, residual plans and income opportunities using carefully selected formulas to determine the ways in which our businesses will grow so we will continue to profit. While we plan for the best, are we prepared for the worst? As we've learned recently, many of us are not.

The best way to stay calm when disaster strikes is to plan in advance. While I wouldn't advise spending your days worrying about problems down the road (there's no need to be like Chicken Little, running around screaming that the sky is falling), take a few moments away from planning future successes to put together a strategy that will help you make things right when something goes wrong.

Forewarned is forearmed. If you've been running the business well, a base of loyal and supportive clients will hopefully speak on your behalf and even alert you to developing problems before they become full-blown crises. If you haven't been running the business well, you will have to deal with those who are ready to jump on the negative bandwagon.

When a problem seems imminent, loyal clients and staff members will let you know. In some cases, they might even be able to stop it from happening, if they like you enough to intervene.

However, even the best-run company might occasionally find itself in the midst of a PR crisis. Following is what to do if you find your company in the hot seat:

Constructing a Crisis Management Plan

For better or worse, especially worse, word travels fast in this industry. It's likely that you have strong opinions about competitors based on what you experienced with them firsthand or heard about them secondhand. Think of merchants you converted from processors with which they were unhappy.

Remember what you've read in The Green Sheet or on GS Online's MLS Forum about specific companies, processors and ISOs and what opinions you formed about them. Once you know what positively and negatively shapes your perception of a company, begin safeguarding your own business's reputation against a possible PR disaster.

Find out what your own reputation is. Check with sources you can count on to provide an unbiased opinion. You might discover that the way others perceive you and the way you want them to perceive you are worlds apart.

Determining what people really think of your company, and what you want them to think, will provide a framework for crafting crisis responses that fit your overall image.

Once you know the most likely scenarios that can have an unwanted impact on your business's reputation, begin anticipating how to respond to a given situation. One universal truth: When something goes wrong, you'll need to have a clear chain of communication in place.

In a time of crisis, anyone who works at your company is seen as its representative and one wrong comment might do major damage. Make a list of who needs to be apprised of the situation when bad news hits and set up a plan. Whether it's a phone tree, a blast e-mail, or a message on an internal Web site, get the word out efficiently and accurately.

One caveat: Be careful what you put in writing. Assume that any written communication to your employees will end up on the front page of "The New York Times." Stick to the facts (as much of the facts as you'd like the general public to know), and you will be safe.

Creating Your Message

The best way to create the impression that your company is calm, collected and dealing with a situation with the utmost professionalism is to keep your message consistent (and remember, "no comment" is not a message that inspires confidence).

Take into account the image your company projects, the image you would like your company to project, and the size and scope of the problem. Then, write a message accordingly. Shorter is always better, to avoid providing more details than are necessary.

For example, by saying, "We're having technical problems and the situation will be resolved by tomorrow morning," you have made the situation so dull that there will be no news value, which will deflect negative press.

The simplest way to create and distribute a consistent message is to choose a spokesperson in advance, before anything goes wrong.

Think hard about who the most qualified candidate is: someone who knows and understands the situation, thinks fast, stays cool under pressure, anticipates possible surprise angles and unexpected developments, and communicates clearly with a variety of different people.

This person might be you, it might be an experienced employee, or it might be someone who helps you with marketing or advertising. When something negative happens to your company, immediately address the situation. Send out a response, apologize if necessary, and emphasize all the steps that the company is taking to return to business as usual as promptly as possible.

The spokesperson should distribute a clear, concise version of this message (no more than two or three sentences) to every employee so that no uneasy gossip gets out of hand, and the company responds with one voice.

If the spokesperson is comfortable doing so and the situation warrants it, be proactive and have him or her contact key media outlets, affected merchant categories, or discussion forums before the office is swamped with questions and requests for comment.

Remind the spokesperson to stay upbeat, cautiously optimistic and, above all, confident that the company is aware of the situation and taking care of it.

Don't Play the Blame Game

Your first reaction when trouble occurs will likely be to point a finger at one or more possible culprits: a conniving competitor, an inept leader, an employee who was asleep at the wheel. Don't. Even if ultimately right, nine times out of 10, this looks like you're simply picking on an easy target.

The overall impression people will have of your company is that when something goes wrong, you react by transferring the blame to others. This is not a mature response, and not the way anyone would like others to view their business.

Be direct and honest about the problem, what caused it, and why it will never happen again. If it's your fault, say that it's your fault, and apologize. No one likes groveling, so don't be melodramatic. A sincere, straightforward mea culpa will win major points with the media and strengthen your company's overall reputation.

Some PR strategists will tell you that any news is good news. They're wrong. Your goal is to minimize the media impact of serious failures and offer context or a new perspective (a failure might lead to state-of-the-art security improvements or a customer service complaint to a restructuring of your call center) in order to turn that lemon into lemonade.

What's the worst that could happen? Odds are, it's something that you've never considered. But once you have an effective crisis management plan in place, suddenly the worst won't look so bad after all.

Nancy Drexler is the Marketing Director and Sam Neuman is the Communications Specialist for Cynergy Data, a merchant acquirer that provides a wide array of electronic payment processing services while continually striving to develop new solutions that meet the needs of its agents and merchants. In addition to offering credit, debit, EBT and gift card processing, along with check conversion and guarantee programs, the company offers its ISOs the ability to borrow money against its residuals, to have Web sites designed and developed, to provide merchants with free terminals and to benefit from state-of-the-art marketing, technology and business support.

Founded in 1995 by Marcelo Paladini and John Martillo, Cynergy Data strives to be a new kind of acquirer with a unique mission: to constantly explore, understand and develop the products that ISOs and merchants need to be successful, and to back it up with honest, reliable and supportive service. For more information on Cynergy Data contact Nancy Drexler, Marketing Director, at

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