IStock_000005495905XXLarge Late last year a crippled Carnival Cruise ship was brought into port with thousands of disgruntled customers. Their vacations were ruined, they were stuck at sea and the media was having a field day covered their plight and the potential downside of the entire category of cruising. If you were Carnival, what would you do?

If you are lucky, you haven’t been faced with this real question looming in front of you for your small business, but at any moment you might be.  You could have a rogue employee who does something foolish, or a product that doesn’t work the way it is supposed to, or a completely unreasonable customer who decides to take to blogs and start publicly bashing your company. In this 24/7 always connected world, the next crisis can be right around the corner. 

Trying to prevent it from happening is obviously the best choice, but what if it does happen? Here are a few steps that crisis communications pros use when faced with this exact situation to help deal with a crisis, rebuild a brand reputation and save a company.

  1. Express authentic concern. The worst thing you can do when you start dealing with any crisis is to give the impression that you are not bothered by the crisis itself. In the case of Carnival, they ruined people’s vacations and the public needs to see them feel bad about it.  Feeling bad won’t fix anything on its own, but it does demonstrate that you and your company have a heart and that you care.
  2. Share the facts, not your defense. As the crisis plays out, chances are you will still be gathering the facts.  If there are lawyers involved, this can be particularly tricky – but when you have concrete facts, it is always a best practice to share them. This doesn’t mean using them to assign blame to a subcontractor or pointing fingers. It is possible that the crisis wasn’t your fault, but in the beginning that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you demonstrate you are trying to be honest and authentic as you and your team work to solve the issue.
  3. Outline a believable solution. The important thing in this phase is to not declare victory over a crisis prematurely. When you know that you have really solved the issue, give the public a real description of how you fixed it and how that fix will make it impossible for the same issue to happen again.
  4. Detail (or elevate) the real issue alongside the solution. Once you have done the first three steps, you can get to the point where you really share who was at fault.  This is not the moment for you to point fingers, but rather to elevate the issue if it is warranted.  If it was an employee that screwed up, this point is where you share the new policies that you have in place to fix that in the future. If it was a subcontractor problem, you talk about how you will be revising your entire supply chain to manage this type of issue.
  5. Emerge as a leader. The final step is what can turn a crisis into something that you just sit through and hope to survive through into a critical moment where you could transform your business. After you have emerged from the crisis, the question to ask is how you can lead your industry and help make sure that this crisis doesn’t happen to any other company.  This may involve creating a partnership or working with a third party group, or even starting one. The goal of this phase is to go above and beyond just fixing a problem, and demonstrate that what you learned from the entire experience was that this issue is critical to solve for the entire industry – and you are going to be the one to try and do it.

This post is republished from the original article on the American Express Open Forum website. It is part of "Small Business Friday" on this blog – a featured series on ideas and marketing techniques for small businesses.

To read more articles like this, visit the "Small Business Friday" category on this blog.