With everyday concerns eating up most of your work hours, it’s easy to push something like the development of a crisis communication plan to the end of your to-do list.
However, it’s critical to have a plan in place as a crisis can strike at any moment. In addition to enhanced connectivity, social media apps have opened up entire new arenas where the court of public opinion is all too easily swayed. Think for a minute about how many reputations suffered an almost immediate, irretrievable loss in the aftermath of the 2019 U.S college admissions scandal. We should strive to avoid PR disasters layered on top of a crisis.
Having even one employee who does not know better than to speak to a reporter on your behalf can result in significant damage to the reputation of your business. If you’ve delayed updating your current policy, or have never written one, 2021 is a good year to get motivated.
When does a ‘problem’ get promoted to ‘crisis?’
Sadly, there’s no surefire way to guard against disastrous events. Unforeseen problems crop up in every business setting, large or small. A crisis could be company-centered, such as a data breach, or something more personal like a community-wide loss of trust in a high-profile employee. One good rule of thumb to discern between an internal problem — say, shelves not being restocked — and a crisis is to consider the number of people affected by the event.
Other factors to consider are the severity of the losses and your worst-case scenario for inaccurate communication. Not getting out ahead of someone else’s message might result in reputation damage, bankruptcy, the demise of your business, and even government intervention. By the time the news trucks start rolling in, it’s probably too late.
The pandemic of 2020 provides a good backdrop for prioritizing the development of your company’s crisis communication plan. What you don’t want is a news outlet contacting one of your remote workers for a comment, unbeknownst to management. Here are five important steps you can take to avoid making a crisis worse through missteps in communication:
1. Organize your communication team ahead of a crisis-level event.
Since a crisis can occur at any moment, it’s vital you set up your team ahead of time and communicate to all employees a descending order of contact. For example, instead of providing a list of five team members and their contact info, remove all ambiguity. “No one talks to the media, except our designated spokesperson. Period. If the media cannot reach her, contact the CEO.”
A crisis communications response team might look something like this:
- The designated spokesperson has the final word on all outward-focused messaging.
- The PR executive and/or legal counsel serve as chief advisors to the spokesperson.
- The CEO or president will step in, especially if the crisis involves a high-profile individual.
- Division head, which may need to provide context and specifics.
- Subject-matter experts, which could be an employee or widely-recognized authority.
2. Hire a spokesperson or train one of your current employees.
Your spokesperson does not necessarily have to be employed by a public relations firm, but it’s always best to have a media-trained professional on hand. Don’t make the mistake of confusing talented senior and junior-level executives with media-savvy professionals.
Like it or not, people will draw conclusions about your company based on the spokesperson. That individual should be confident in front of large audiences and capable of communicating sensitive information both online and in-person. Having someone who knows how to talk to the media could make or break the outcome of a crisis. Qualities to look for include:
- Speaks clearly and with compassion.
- Trustworthy, consistently reliable.
- Captures the attention of an audience.
- Knows the audience and its needs.
- Closes with confidence.
3. Tighten up your internal communication procedures.
Employees and stakeholders help make a business successful and can provide support during a crisis. Since your employees form the backbone of daily operations, it’s critical you give them timely, accurate information. It also helps immeasurably if you’ve previously allocated time and other resources to get to know them better as part of your everyday work rhythm. If possible, you’ll want them well-briefed on any crisis before word gets out to a larger audience.
Pick the right channel for communicating with your employees, whether that’s email, a company-wide meeting, or some other mechanism. Every employee needs access to all relevant policies and procedures. Make certain everyone is clear as to who you have authorized to speak for the company and who you have not. Periodic reminders, maybe once per quarter, can’t hurt, either.
4. Develop a holding statement.
When a crisis hits, it’s critical to release a response as soon as possible. With a crisis communication plan already in place, the whole process should run as smoothly as possible.
For starters, gather contact information for local government including public health, fire, and police departments. Include a media list with company names, titles, and contact information for the local and national press.
In the event of a planned crisis — the need to lay off employees, for example — your messages can be tweaked any number of times. However, your team should also develop a list of possible unplanned crisis-level events that might affect your business. Planning for these scenarios allows you to develop messages that will guide your spokesperson in the heat of the moment.
After putting together your list, begin developing specific responses for each anticipated crisis. Having a statement ready for the press release and media responses allows for a quick response and can help avoid extensive damage. Your team should also develop vent-specific guidelines for press inquiries and social media interaction.
5. Schedule a post-crisis debrief.
It’s not over just yet. Once the uproar from a crisis dies down, you’ll need to revisit it. You can always lessons learn lessons from a crisis, so use that opportunity to analyze what your team did right. Additionally, analyze what your team could have done better. Ask your team, “What did we learn from this?” Make sure someone in the room is taking good notes for future updates to the communication plan, employee handbooks, and other appropriate documents.
No one likes to think about disasters and plan for them. However, business owners need to be realists and make provisions for events they hope never happen. Not having a plan needlessly delays response time and sets the stage for serious failures in communication.
Make your plan as detailed as possible, but keep it simple for anyone to understand and follow. After all, you can never be sure every member of your team will be available when needed.
In the era of social media, rumors travel with lightning speed and fallacies can quickly be perceived as facts. With any luck, your crisis communications plan will serve the same purpose as a fire extinguisher. You may never need it, but you’ll be glad you have it when you do.