Developing a PE Crisis Protocol: Essential Questions to Ask Your Portfolio Company
By Caroline Roseman and Lisa Pham
In a dynamic market, it is crucial that private equity firms align on communications protocols with each company in which they invest from the start of the relationship.
Your private equity firm just invested in a company with a compelling business strategy and talented employee base. Now that you have begun working together, how can you help your new portfolio company refine its communications infrastructure and approach for mutual success moving forward? As private equity firms and their portfolio companies face mounting pressures and heightened scrutiny from regulators, politicians and the general public, how can you also ensure that you and the company are ready to work together productively should you get the wrong kind of attention?
Here are some initial questions to ask your portfolio company:
1) How do you currently manage reputational issues and crises and how will the PE firm fit into this?
The portfolio company in which you invested may have a formal plan in place and existing relationships with seasoned crisis management advisors, or it could instead rely on unofficial “muscle memory” processes if things go sideways. Understanding how the company has historically responded to crises and how it imagines this will look like going forward in partnership with a private equity partner will make sure both sides are working in lockstep. You might also assess if your portfolio company has, or needs, any additional resources to communicate better during a crisis or other period of change, including any advisors or monitoring platforms. By aligning in advance on how you will work together during a crisis, you can help reduce friction and sharpen execution when close coordination is needed most.
2) What are some of your current concerns regarding reputational issues?
Because a crisis can develop quickly, it’s vital to have a clear sense of potential issues or vulnerabilities before they escalate. While some of this information may have surfaced in your due diligence process, other areas may be less visible, such as employee concerns that have not been made public. When beginning to work with your portfolio company, carve out time to meet with key departments and team members, including HR and compliance, to learn what might not be obvious from the outside and what risks keep them up at night.
3) What types of issues would institute a “crisis” for your portfolio company?
Not every issue constitutes a crisis or requires a full crisis response. Since it is not always obvious which seemingly small issues can turn into something more serious, you should work together to establish an escalation policy that reflects both the matters that can be handled routinely and those needing special treatment. Encourage open communications with your portfolio company so that they feel comfortable raising potential issues before they reach the crisis threshold.
4) What is the company’s media profile and how does it handle media relations?
While your firm’s deal team would likely have some familiarity with your new portfolio company’s media profile from its earlier due diligence process, it is important to know how exactly the company views and approaches the media, what policies it has in place for engagement and who monitors in-house email submissions and corporate voicemail systems. Understanding the portfolio company’s media strategy ahead of a potential crisis will give both you and your portfolio company’s team a solid foundation to work from and guide your approach during a fast-moving situation.
5) Who are the company’s key stakeholders, and how does the team normally communicate with them?
Who are the third-party advocates who can help speak on your company’s behalf during a crisis?
In any crisis, it will be crucial to know in advance who are your portfolio company’s most essential stakeholders and what channels currently exist for communicating with them. Since different companies, even in the same industry, have different stakeholders, this knowledge will enable both your firm and the company to move efficiently, especially if there are emerging inquiries from certain audiences or if there are specific stakeholder group(s) that must quickly be informed. Additionally, knowing if the company has a base of third-party advocates who can speak on its behalf or provide support can soften the impacts of any potential reputational incidents. Understanding the channels available for these stakeholder communications will help save time in a crisis. We often advise companies to stick with the regular channels so stakeholders know where to receive updates and aren’t caught off guard.
Having the answers to these questions early in the relationship will allow private equity firms and their portfolio companies to align on communications collaborate effectively and set the foundation for a productive relationship.
Caroline Roseman, a Senior Account Executive at H/Advisors Abernathy, helps prepare and execute strategic communications plans for a variety of special situations, including mergers & acquisitions, executive transitions, shareholder activism, company transformations and sensitive crisis matters. She also has significant experience working with private equity and other financial services firms on corporate reputation initiatives and transaction-focused communications.
Lisa Pham, a Vice President at H/Advisors Abernathy, assists clients with strategic communications and reputation management across a range of business announcements, including M&A, restructuring, IPOs and crises. She has provided counsel to clients across the energy, healthcare, technology and consumer products sectors on how to navigate pivotal moments in their growth trajectories.