Crisis communications: not something anyone wants to think about, but something everyone should think about. Do you and your team know how to respond in a crisis? In our fast-paced information society, you need to be able to react in a matter of minutes, not hours – and having a plan can make all the difference in the world.
What is a crisis?
When it comes to business communications, a “crisis” is anything that could disrupt your ability to conduct business as usual. Natural disaster keeping you from serving your clients? Possible crisis. Vendor fails to ship a critical part that throws off your timeline for delivery? Probable crisis.
You get frustrated during an interview and body slam a reporter? Definite crisis.
Why does it matter?
Once upon a time, business owners might have been able to sit back and wait and hope negative things would blow over. But social media, online communications and a 24-hour news cycle that is quickly becoming even shorter mean that being proactively reactive is the only way to get ahead of negative impacts. If you don’t have a workable crisis communications plan, your internal response will fracture, your stakeholders will become frustrated at a lack of information, and the problem will become exponentially more difficult – and expensive – to solve.
Now for a few tips…
1 – Anticipate
You can’t plan for every possible problem, but you can make educated guesses. Some crises are unexpected (an employee acting out), while others can be planned for (a large layoff). The more you can anticipate a crisis, the less of one it will be. And the beauty of crisis planning is that as soon as you start thinking about crises, you will also start thinking about responses.
2 – Identify
Who is your crisis communications team? Identify a spokesperson or people. Everyone else needs to know that these are the point people, and all contacts should be deferred to them in a crisis communications situation. In many cases, the CEO is the appointed lead, but not necessarily. Involve your communicators, your internal leaders and possibly even your legal counsel to determine your lead.
No matter what, be sure that the appointed spokesperson has the skills and abilities to respond effectively. If they can’t handle public speaking, or are easily flustered by pressure, find someone else. Appearances matter. Your CEO can be a part of all decisions, but if he or she isn’t able to deliver the message, make sure you have someone who can. And if they need additional training, get it for them. It’s an investment you may never need to capitalize on, but if you need it, it will be worth every penny.
3 – Chain of communication
Establish how communication will be shared, and by whom. For contacting staff, how will you reach them and do you have those contacts easily accessible? For contacting stakeholders and the public, determine how your audience is best reached and be prepared to contact them in multiple ways. You don’t want to be wrangling email addresses or trying to find someone’s phone number during this time.
4 – Watch yourself like a spectator
Track what others are saying and where and how they are saying it. If something has gone wrong, monitor social media to see what people are saying about it. Set up a Google Alert for your company, your name, etc., so you can get notified whenever someone else is talking about you. Watch for trending conversations, and be prepared to intervene or respond if necessary.
5 – Placeholders
Develop some boilerplate statements that can be tweaked as needed and issued immediately. Always emphasize your core mission and values, and tailor the response to the type of situation. A natural disaster would merit a different sentiment than a shipping delay. A sample statement could be: “We will solve this problem as quickly as possible, and will be working overtime to assure our clients the superior service they are accustomed to. We will be posting updates on the situation on our website and Facebook page, and will send an email to clients with more information as soon as it is available.” And then, just as important as the message, make sure you are prepared to follow through on any promises you make.
6 – Plan
Go through the list of possible crises and brainstorm possible responses. Draft preliminary messages and talk through scenarios with your leadership team. Determine core messages and do’s and don’ts. It really is true that the act of doing this work is the most important part of the process. You can’t know exactly what crisis will occur, but if you have been thinking about responses, you will be far more prepared to deal with anything. As President Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”
Temple Lentz is principal and director of content and communications for High Five Media, as well as business director for The Heather DeFord Group of Cascade Sotheby’s International Realty. Visit High Five online at www.HighFiveMedia.us.