In everyday life, what we consider worthy of “crisis” status can take on many forms. Maybe it’s having nothing to wear to a friend’s birthday party. Or being stuck in traffic the morning of an important meeting. Or — horror upon horrors — finding out your Starbucks latte was made with whole milk instead of skim. Cue frustrated sighs, dramatic eye rolls and maybe even an obscenity or two muttered under your breath.

Sure, these aren’t exactly headline-grabbing events, but the feelings they elicit — panic, uncertainty, annoyance — are what make them feel like a crisis. The fact is, no matter how insignificant they might seem, situations like these disrupt our day and, more importantly, make us feel out of control. But unless you have a particular flair for the dramatic, chances are whatever it is that has you cursing will soon come to pass, and before you know it you’ll be unclenching those balled up fists and carrying on with your day relatively unscathed.

However, in the corporate context, the word crisis takes on a whole new meaning. In PR terms, a company facing a crisis is a company at real risk of far-reaching and potentially long-lasting reputational damage as a result of something that has happened either internally or externally. For any company in this situation, there’s no such thing as shrugging it off. Instead, to protect the integrity of its brand, a company in crisis must implement a rock-solid crisis management plan — and stat.

Take the recent example of Subway. In early July, its longtime spokesperson, Jared Fogle, became the subject of a high-profile police investigation, which eventually found him guilty of possessing child pornography and having sex with minors. As a mature brand with a global customer base, Fogle’s convictions made headlines worldwide, putting Subway at risk of serious reputational damage. In order to protect its brand, Subway needed to act fast and put a crisis management plan in place that would position the company as socially responsible, authentic and independent of its spokesperson.

So, did the plan work? Well, yes and no. Here are a few key lessons we can take away from Subway’s approach to crisis management.

Stick to the facts

It’s important for companies to remain as neutral as possible whenever a controversy begins to unfold. This is particularly true when there are legal implications, like a criminal investigation. Offering opinion or commentary that isn’t rooted in fact is not going to help the situation — in fact, it might hurt it, by making your company appear unprofessional or as though it doesn’t respect the legal process. In July, when it was first reported that Fogle’s house was being raided, Subway did the right thing in releasing an official statement that it was previously unaware of and would be monitoring the situation. This showed that Subway acknowledged the gravity of what was occurring but that it, like the rest of the world, would need to await the outcome to learn whether the allegations were true.

Cut the ties

If someone connected to your brand is found to have behaved unethically or criminally, it’s essential to separate your company from their actions — and the easiest way to do this is to end the relationship, be it through suspension, termination or severing a contract. When the raid on Fogle’s house first came to light, Subway didn’t wait around for the outcome. It took immediate, decisive action and suspended its relationship with its spokesman of over 15 years — a bold but wise move, as it helped to distance the company from a potentially catastrophic situation. Once the charges were filed, Subway then took things one step further by removing Fogle’s name and image from all in-store and digital marketing collateral, including its website. Its break-up with Fogle was swift, savvy and, above all, smart.

Change the conversation

If your company is making headlines for all the wrong reasons, why not give the media something positive to talk about instead? Between the launch of the initial investigation and the charges being laid, Subway had nearly six weeks to do something that would positively showcase the company and take the focus away from Fogle — but, apart from tweeting that Fogle’s actions weren’t representative of its brand values, Subway seemed to take a business-as-usual approach, doing little to shift the conversation. Arguably, it would have been more effective for Subway to use this time to launch a new campaign or engage in some strategic PR to help reinforce a more positive message around the Subway brand.

Be accountable

Most rational people understand that one individual is not representative of an entire company. But when someone is convicted of a crime as heinous as Fogle’s, rational thinking, unsurprisingly, goes out the window. In this case, the pubic, outraged and disgusted, was quick to characterize Subway as guilty by association — after all, Fogle had been its golden child for over a decade. What’s more, when claims surfaced that Subway had failed to investigate a complaint regarding Fogle, the company instantly appeared willfully ignorant. Even if Subway genuinely had no idea about Fogle’s criminal behaviour, as the company that turned him into a household name — that funded his lifestyle for well over a decade — it arguably has a moral obligation to assume a certain amount of responsibility for its association with Fogle. So far, the company has done nothing to help offset the damage inflicted upon Fogle’s victims, or its own reputation for that matter. Setting up a charity fund or aligning itself with a victim support group would not only demonstrate accountability, but would help position Subway as a caring organization committed to helping all those affected by Fogle’s actions.

Be prepared

One of the most important lessons companies can take away from the Subway crisis is this: always be prepared. In today’s fast-paced, online world, it doesn’t take long for a sticky situation to turn into the next sensationalized headline. An effective crisis management plan should outline potential scenarios that could put your company at risk — everything from a bomb threat, to a fire, to poor employee conduct — and should include response procedures for potential scenarios, including communication channels and a description of who’s in charge. You never know what’s around the corner, but an effective crisis management plan is the best defense against whatever disaster might come your way.

When catastrophe strikes or a crisis is looming, g[squared] can help you respond swiftly and strategically in order to avoid any lasting reputational damage. Contact us today to find out more about our crisis management services.