Through endless repetition soldiers commit to muscle memory every detail of each maneuver so they can perform without thinking in the mind-numbing chaos of battle. Managing the crises that threaten franchisors' brands and systems requires no less preparation. Advance planning enables franchisors to contain and limit the threat posed by sudden adverse events. Conversely, establishing a crisis management team, choosing its members, crafting effective talking points, and selecting a spokesperson only after the press comes calling is a recipe for certain disaster.
Crises don't run on schedule. To respond effectively when a crisis arises, a team should be ready to act at a moment's notice. Forming a crisis team in advance ensures that key members are available, know their role, and are prepared to formulate the franchisor's crisis response and execute it.
The crisis team should be representative of the franchisor's business and include key departments, such as development, marketing, operations, and franchisee relations. It should include both internal and external resources to ensure that its membership is knowledgeable about the franchisor's business and objective. Internal team members should be senior executives who can act capably and decisively. External members might include persons with communications, public or media relations, or legal expertise, especially if the franchisor lacks these resources in-house. Public relations experts help tailor the franchisor's message to intended audiences and make sure the message is optimally placed. Outside legal counsel is indispensible to ensure that the franchisor's message and actions are consistent with immediate and long-term legal considerations, and to mediate or manage conflicting opinions, competing interests, and, often, team members' big egos.
The day after news of the salmonella outbreak goes viral is not the time to develop the franchisor's message. Prepared talking points afford the franchisor a safe harbor when the storm hits and may be relied upon reflexively. They should be developed analytically and thoughtfully in a quiet and deliberative environment. That environment will not exist in the midst of the crisis, or an hour before a reporter's deadline. Having talking points in the can ensures that the franchisor's message can be delivered on a moment's notice and avoids resort to the dreaded "No comment."
"No comment" is a comment, but it's not a message. At best, it portrays the franchisor as disinterested, unengaged, or unprepared. At worst, it casts the franchisor as dismissive, indifferent, or arrogant. In either event, "No comment" neither reflects well on the franchisor nor promotes its interests. Instead, it essentially forfeits a crucial opportunity to contain, or even defuse, a crisis at the outset; or, failing that, to change the topic of discussion entirely.
Talking points should communicate key facts, create favorable impressions, and, where appropriate, tactfully question the franchisor's responsibility. They should present the franchisor as engaged, concerned and "on the ball," and present its position on the core issue the crisis presents. For example, in response to a food-borne illness outbreak, the franchisor might reference its strict health and safety standards, the policies and procedures in place to prevent contamination or spoilage, and its stellar track record maintaining health and safety standards throughout its system. Where the origin of an outbreak remains unclear, pointed questions might challenge assumptions about the franchisor's involvement. Where responsibility appears certain, the franchisor--in consultation with legal counsel--should express concern and empathy without admitting liability or creating vicarious liability for the acts of others, like its franchisees.
Even the best message spoken by the wrong voice will fall flat. Therefore, the franchisor must carefully select the proper spokesperson. Outside resources, including media experts and legal counsel, should participate in the selection to ensure the choice is merit-based.
The ideal spokesperson will be articulate, smart, and likeable. Above all, this person will have demonstrated grace under pressure and be experienced in handling media inquiries. The spokesperson need not be a franchisor executive or employee, however. While an insider may be more knowledgeable, the best choice very well may be an outsider, such as outside counsel who likely will have relevant oratory and rhetorical skills. Often, in-house legal counsel will have a strong knowledge base and possess the relevant skill set and experience of communicating effectively and persuasively while under fire.
Finally, the spokesperson should be given exclusive authority to speak the franchisor's piece. A cacophony of multiple voices creates a risk of inconsistency and may confuse the franchisor's message.
Planning and preparation is the key to effective crisis management. Knowing in advance who will speak and what the message will be are essential to minimizing the damage that crises pose to a franchisor's brand and system. The time to begin is now.
Fredric A. Cohen is a partner in the Chicago law firm of Cheng Cohen, LLC. For more than two decades he has represented many of the nation's most prominent franchise, licensing, and distribution companies in a wide variety of lawsuits from complex multi-forum actions to standard enforcement actions. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-243-1717.