By JONATHAN BERNSTEIN
Every organisation is vulnerable to crises.
The days of playing ostrich – burying your head in the sand and hoping the problem goes away – are gone. You can try, but your stakeholders will not be understanding or forgiving because they’ve watched what happened with Volkswagen, Chipotle, FIFA, and Lance Armstrong.
If you don’t prepare, you will incur more damage. When I look at existing crisis management-related plans, what I often find is a failure to address the many communication issues related to crisis or disaster response.
Experience demonstrates that organisational leadership often does not understand that in the absence of adequate internal and external communications, the following happens:
- Operational response will break down.
- Stakeholders will not know what is happening and quickly become confused, angry, and react negatively.
- The organisation will be perceived as inept, at best, and criminally negligent, at worst.
- The length of time required to bring full resolution to the issue will be extended, often dramatically.
- The impact to the financial and reputational bottom line will be more severe.
The basic steps of effective crisis communications are not difficult, but they require advance work in order to minimise damage. So, if you’re serious about crisis preparedness and response, read and implement these 10 steps of crisis communications, the first seven of which can and should be undertaken before any crisis occurs.
If you’re being proactive and preparing for crises, gather your Crisis Communications Team for intensive brainstorming sessions on all the potential crises that could occur at your organisation.
There are at least two immediate benefits to this exercise:
- You may realise that some of the situations are preventable by simply modifying existing methods of operation.
- You can begin to think about possible responses, about best-case/worst-case scenarios, etc. Better now than when under the pressure of an actual crisis.
In some cases, you know a crisis will occur because you’re planning to create it – e.g., to lay off employees, or to make a major acquisition.
There is a more formal method of gathering this information, I call it a “vulnerability audit.”
This assessment process should lead to creating a Crisis Response Plan that is an exact fit for your organisation – one that includes both operational and communications components. The remaining steps below outline some of the major topics that should be addressed in the communications section of the plan.
Identify your Crisis Communications Team
A small team of senior executives should be identified to serve as your organisation’s Crisis Communications Team. Ideally, the chief executive (CEO) will lead the team, with the organisation’s top public relations executive and legal counsel as his or her chief advisers.
If your in-house PR executive does not have sufficient crisis communications expertise, he or she may choose to retain an agency or independent consultant with that specialty.
Other team members are typically the heads of your major organisational divisions, as any situation that rises to the level of being a crisis will affect your entire organisation. And sometimes, the team also needs to include those with special knowledge related to the current crisis, e.g., subject-specific experts.
Let me say a word about legal counsel. Historically, I used to have to do a lot of arm-wresting with lawyers over strategy and messaging. They were focused strictly on the court of law while a crisis manager is focused primarily on the court of public opinion.
More and more lawyers are beginning to understand that the organisation in crisis can be destroyed in the court of public opinion years before the legal process plays out.
They have come to understand that “no comment” translates as “we’re guilty or hiding something” to the public, and that there are a lot of other ways to say very little and still appear responsive to those seeking more information.
Remember this: Entire countries and causes have had their ambitions thwarted, or aided, as a consequence of their trials in the court of public opinion.
Identify and train spokespersons
Every organisation should ensure, via appropriate policies and training, that only authorised spokespersons speak for it. This is particularly important during a crisis.
Each Crisis Communications Team should have people who have been pre-screened and trained to be the lead and/or backup spokespersons for different channels of communications. All organisational spokespersons during a crisis situation must have:
The Right Skills
I’ve met senior-level corporate executives who could stand up in front of a 1,000-person conference without fear and speak eloquently – but would choke up when they knew a camera was pointed their way for a one-on-one interview.
I’ve also known very effective written communicators who should probably never do spoken interviews because they’re way too likely to “step in it” using that format.
These days, spokesperson responsibilities invariably include online communication, and social media is a very easy place to make a mistake.
Matching potential spokespersons’ skills with their assignments as a member of the Crisis Communications Team is critical.
The Right Position
Some spokespersons may naturally excel at all forms of crisis communications – traditional media, social media, B2B, internal, etc. Others may be more limited.
Only certain types of highly sensitive crises (e.g., ones involving significant loss of life) mandate the chief executive be the lead spokesperson unless there is very good cause to the contrary.
The fact is that, some chief executives are brilliant organisational leaders but not very effective in-person communicators. The decision about who should speak is made after a crisis breaks – but the pool of potential spokespersons should be identified and trained in advance.
Not only are spokespersons needed for media communications, but for all types and forms of communications, internal and external. This includes on-camera, at a public meeting, at employee meetings, etc.
You really don’t want to be making decisions about so many different types of spokespersons while “under fire.”
Two typical quotes from well-intentioned executives summarise the reason why your spokespersons should receive professional training on how to speak to the media:
“I talked to that nice reporter for over an hour and he didn’t use the most important news about my organisation.”
“I’ve done a lot of public speaking. I won’t have any trouble at that public hearing.”
Referring to the first example, there have been hundreds of people skewered by CBS’ “60 Minutes” or ABC’s “20/20” who thought they knew how to talk to the press.
In the second case, most executives who have attended a hostile public hearing have gone home wishing they had been wearing a pair of Depends.
These people didn’t learn in advance, the critical differences between proactive PR, which focuses on promoting your organisation, and crisis communications, which focuses on preserving your organisation.
All stakeholders, internal and external, are just as capable of misunderstanding or misinterpreting information about your organisation as the media. It’s your responsibility to minimise the chance of that happening.
Spokesperson training teaches you to be prepared, to be ready to respond in a way that optimises the response of all stakeholders.
Establish notification and monitoring systems
Remember when the only way to reach someone quickly was by a single phone or fax number, assuming they were there to receive either? For a long time, those of us in crisis management relied on the old-fashioned “phone tree” and teams of callers to track people down.
Fortunately, today there is technology that can be set up to automatically start contacting all stakeholders in your pre-established database. Technology you can trigger with a single call or email.
Today, we need to have the means to reach our internal and external stakeholders using multiple modalities. Many of us have several phone numbers, more than one email address, and can receive SMS (text) messages or faxes.
Instant Messenger programs, are also very popular for business and personal use. We can even send audio and video messages via email.
And then, of course, there is social media. This may be the best/fastest way to reach most of our stakeholders. However, setting up social media accounts for this purpose and developing a number of followers/friends/contacts on the various platforms (e.g., Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+) is not something you can do after a crisis breaks. Let’s face it, nowhere does news of a crisis spread faster and more out of your control than on social media.
Depending on how “techie” we choose to be, all of these types of communication – and more – may be received on or sent by a single device.
It is absolutely essential, pre-crisis, to establish notification systems that will allow you to rapidly reach your stakeholders using multiple modalities.
The Virginia Tech shooting tragedy, where email was the sole means of alerting students, proves that using any single modality can make a crisis worse.
Some of us may be on email constantly, others not so. Some of us respond to our cell phone calls or messages quickly, some not. If you use more than one modality to reach your stakeholders, the chances are much higher that the message will go through.
Intelligence gathering is an essential component of both crisis prevention and crisis response.
Knowing what’s being said about you on media platforms by your employees, customers, and other stakeholders often allows you to catch a negative “trend” that, if unchecked, could turn into a crisis.
Likewise, monitoring feedback from all stakeholders during a crisis situation allows you to accurately adapt your strategy and tactics.
Both require monitoring systems be established in advance. For traditional and social media, Google Alerts are the no-cost favourite, but there are also free social media tracking apps such as Hootsuite. There are also a variety of paid monitoring services that provide not only monitoring, but also the ability to report results in a number of formats.
Monitoring other stakeholders means training personnel who have front-line contact with stakeholders (e.g., customer service) to report what they’re hearing or seeing to decision-makers on your Crisis Communications Team.
Identify and know your stakeholders
Who are your most important internal and external stakeholders?
I consider employees to be your most important internal stakeholders – every employee is a PR representative and crisis manager for your organisation whether you want them to be or not!
Ultimately, all stakeholders will be talking about you to others, so it’s up to you to ensure that they receive the messages you would like them to repeat elsewhere.
Develop holding statements
While full message development must await the outbreak of an actual crisis, “holding statements,” designed for use immediately after a crisis breaks, can be developed in advance.
These statements can be used for a wide variety of scenarios to which the organisation is perceived to be vulnerable, based on the assessment you conducted in Step 1 of this process.
Imagine a hotel chain with properties that have been hit by a natural disaster. Before the headquarters has any hard, factual information, holding statements they could release are:
“We have implemented our crisis response plan, which places the highest priority on the health and safety of our guests and staff.”
“Our thoughts are with those who were in harm’s way, and we hope that they are well.”
“We will be supplying additional information when it is available and posting it on our website.”
The organisation’s Crisis Communications Team should regularly review holding statements to determine if they require revision and/or whether statements for other scenarios should be developed.
Assess the crisis situation
Reacting without adequate information is a classic “shoot first, ask questions later” situation in which you could be the primary victim.
However, if you’ve done all of the above first, it becomes a “simple” matter of having the Crisis Communications Team receiving information from your team and ensuring the right type of information is being channelled so you can determine the appropriate response.
Assessing the crisis situation is, therefore, the first crisis communications step you can’t take in advance. If you haven’t prepared ahead of time, your reaction will be delayed by the time it takes your staff or quickly hired consultants to run through steps 1 to 7.
Furthermore, a hastily created crisis communications strategy and team are never as efficient as those planned and rehearsed in advance.
Finalise and adapt key messages
With holding statements available as a starting point, the Crisis Communications Team must continue developing the crisis-specific messages required for any given situation.
The team already knows, categorically, what type of information its stakeholders are looking for. What should those stakeholders know about this crisis?
Keep it simple. Have no more than three main messages that go to all stakeholders and, as necessary, some audience-specific messages for individual groups of stakeholders.
You’ll need to adapt your messaging to different forms of media as well. For example, crisis messaging on Twitter often relies on sharing links to an outside page where a longer message is displayed – a must because of the platform’s 140-character limit.
After the crisis has been dealt with, the question must be asked, “What did we learn from this?”
A formal analysis of what was done right, what was done wrong, what could be done better next time, and how to improve various elements of crisis preparedness is must-do activity for any Crisis Communications Team.
“It can’t happen to us”
When an organisation’s CEO or CFO looks at the cost of preparing a crisis communications plan – either a heavy investment of in-house time or retention of an outside professional for a substantial fee – it is tempting for them to fantasise that “it can’t happen to us” or “if it happens to us, we can handle it relatively easily.”
Hopefully, that type of ostrich emulation is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.
Yet, when all is said and done, I know thousands of organisations will still have suffered far more damage than would have occurred with a fully developed crisis communications plan in place.
This has also been painfully true for scores of clients I have served over the past 30+ years. Even the best crisis management professional has to play catch up – while more damage is occurring – when the organisation has no crisis communications infrastructure already in place.
The last word – for now
I would like to believe that organisations worldwide are finally “getting it” about crisis preparedness – whether we’re talking about crisis communications, disaster response, or business continuity.
Certainly, client demand for advance preparation has increased dramatically in the past decade, at least for my consultancy. But I fear there is, in fact, little change in what I have said in the past – that 95 percent of organisations worldwide remain either completely unprepared or significantly under-prepared for crises.
Choose to be a part of the prepared minority. Your stakeholders will appreciate it!