Whether it's an environmental disaster or rumours of bedbugs, embarrassing news for business can travel at the speed of sound.
Today, every crisis has the potential to go viral on the Internet through social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
"If you think your problem might be contained within the walls of your office or your factory, people are talking on Twitter. That conversation is going to spring up there at some point," said Amanda Laird, communications specialist at CNW Group. "Even something like an executive being charged."
Recalling how a Twitter-born claim of bedbugs at one of the theatres hosting the Toronto International Film Festival was speedily scotched by co-director Cameron Bailey using the same website, a quick response is key, Ms. Laird added.
"Even when there isn't anything new to say, you want to be providing updates because otherwise people are going to start filling in the blanks by themselves," she said.
Preparing for a public relations nightmare could make the difference between coming through it relatively unscathed or with a business reputation in tatters, crisis management experts say.
"If you realize in your business model that consumers can either be hurt or impacted in some way, you have to set up your crisis manuals," said Mat Wilcox a brand consultant based in Toronto.
You should always know "the basics, who is on the team and how to get them together at any time," Ms. Wilcox says. Company decision-makers should be on the team, she said, and the smaller it is, the more efficient it will be.
Its members should think about and carry out practice runs, says Steve Kee of Steve Kee Communications. Because, he says, anything can happen. "You can sit around a table, you can do worst-case scenarios, and if you plan 'ABC' it goes off in a 'D' direction."
So while companies can prepare, he added, "there's nothing like actually being thrown into the fire to teach you how to handle a crisis."
That's a situation Dan Tisch, president of Toronto public relations agency Argyle Communications, is all too familiar with. His firm was working with the American Peanut Council in Canada when news of a salmonella outbreak in peanut butter prompted the largest food recall in U.S. history. The council did not have a public relations firm in the United States and asked Argyle to step in and manage. "It was sort of one those once-in-a-lifetime things," says Mr. Tisch.
The company responsible for the 2009 outbreak was not even a Peanut Council member, and had not followed its standard practices. But from growers to shellers to retailers, the entire sector was tainted by association.
The council's response needed honesty, candour and concern, said Mr. Tisch, "but also, fundamentally, on being pro-active, not letting others tell your story for you."
He found that, unlike print media, broadcasters were presenting inaccurate information. Argyle countered by hiring a respected nutritionist and making her available to television. She was "someone the audience could relate to, who could speak honestly and effectively about what was happening, what was safe, what was not, and give mothers advice," Mr. Tisch said.
Twitter was still in its infancy at the time, but the go-to resource for information for most consumers was still the Internet. Argyle created a website, complementing that of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, offering information about peanut products not affected by the recall.
"We got an astonishing number of unique visits as a result of that tactic," said Mr. Tisch, showing how important it is for companies to know exactly which channels customers are using to inform themselves.
Thanks to blogs, YouTube and Twitter, monitoring what customers are saying about your company is now both easier and more challenging. From Google alerts to TweetScan, any business can connect with customers and, said Ms. Wilcox, "have an early warning system if something goes sideways."
Yet too many companies wait for an emergency before setting themselves up in social media, she added. "You really want to track what people are saying about you right now, establish a personality, if you will, in social media."
Many companies also maintain so-called dark sites. They are designed to provide specific information about a series of potential problems, and they can be immediately activated when needed. A blog, meanwhile, may seem redundant if a business already has a website, but as a crisis evolves, it allows for quick updates and customer feedback.
Mr. Tisch also suggested fostering ongoing relationships with regulators, opinion makers and credible experts.
"I don't mean having a relationship with these people so that they like you," he clarified, "but rather one where they know you, and you know them. They know you are a responsible company operating ethically, that if they have questions they know how to get in touch with you."
When a crisis has blown over, it is still not time for a company to let its guard down. News cycles may be becoming shorter, but news stories live forever on the Internet.
Companies should "make the case for change," Mr. Tisch said. "You've been through this significant crisis, your customers' confidence has been shaken, but not fatally, so they're waiting to find out what you're going to do differently, what you're going to do to make sure it's not going to happen again," he said.
Companies focused only on the short-tem financial impact of a crisis "are looking after the present but ignoring the future," he said. "And the consequences of that can be a disaster."