When it comes to crisis management, a lot of companies could learn from David Letterman. That’s right, Letterman.

Back in 2009, you’ll recall, a TV producer tried to extort $2 million from Letterman by threatening to publicize Letterman’s affairs with female staff members of “The Late Show.” News of the affairs likely was going to leak anyway due to a grand jury investigation into the plot. So what did Letterman do? He told his TV audience all about it, admitted it was egregious behavior, and showed genuine contrition. As well as flashes of humor.

In short, in the face of crisis, he was true to his brand – direct, honest, funny.

That’s good advice facing any company in a crisis. And believe me, if you are in business, you will at some point face a crisis. Maybe not on the level of a BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But still something that can leave a lot more than a greasy sheen on your reputation. In fact, for a company lacking BP’s almost endless financial resources, a PR crisis could be fatal.

How to know you will be ready if a crisis hits? Here are three key steps:

  1. Plan. Letterman probably didn’t plan for his crisis, but as a veteran TV personality he instinctively knew how to react. Most executives do not. So start planning today for what to do in case of crisis – a datacenter failure, product recall, angry customer video that goes viral, whatever could cause your business pain.
  2. Know your values. Most successful case studies of PR triumphs in the face of disaster show companies fare the best when they are honest, transparent, and accountable. Those should be core values for your disaster response. Be honest about mistakes, open about how you intend to correct the situation, and accepting of responsibility.
  3. Be ready to take action. Name a small group of people to be “on point” if a crisis occurs. Their main job: Determine whether there really IS a crisis. If so, then a larger team can be assembled to manage it. Know your key stakeholders – board members, customers, retail channels. Know how best to communicate with each group (e-mail, advertising, social media, news outreach) and have a plan in place for pushing out those communications.

As a PR company with offices in Seattle and Washington, D.C., we’re often advising clients on how to best plan for crisis. It’s a vital part of our job to ensure that our clients are prepared for the worst. Contact us to learn more about our crisis communication services and how we can help crisis-proof your business.