If we’ve learned anything in the last four months, it is that a “crisis communication PLAN” is vital to organizations. Much like a Dicken’s novel, the last four months have been “the best of times, the worst of times.”

When I first addressed this topic in an article a few years back, I noted a number of “PR crises.”  Remember Carnival Cruselines bout with the Norovirus, Paula Deen stepping in her pound cake (so to speak) and the challenged Healthcare.gov website launch? Ah the good old days … we were so innocent.

Add 2020’s pandemic, racial unrest, and a teetering economy and you’ve got a full-blown you-know-what storm.

Plan Today for Tomorrow’s Crisis (Even though You Can’t Imagine Anything Worse than This)

The state of current affairs (June 2020) may makes the future problems your company might face seem minuscule, but don’t be fooled. It doesn’t take a crisis of epic proportions to cripple a business. Incidents that become “crisis mode” aren’t always avoidable. You can do some proactively planning to reduce the potential negative impact to your business.

A “crisis” is defined by business leaders as, “Any situation that threatens the integrity or reputation of your company, usually brought on by adverse or negative media attention.” These situations can be any kind of legal dispute, theft, accident, fire, flood or manmade disaster that could be attributed to your company or impact your ability to operate. It can also be a situation in which the public perceives your company did not react in the appropriate manner.

In an increasing litigious society in which information is shared with the masses as fast as a “280-character Tweet,” a proactive crisis communication plan should be an essential document for every business. I firmly believe a proactive crisis communication plan – performed long before a TV news crew is standing on your doorstep – is an essential piece of an overall communications strategy for organizations.

The First Step: Crisis Scenario Audit

The first step in this plan is performing an audit of the business to determine potential scenarios. This includes consideration of its number of employees, its vulnerability in terms of potential exposure and risk and its standing as a private entity, public company or government agency. Some things to consider:

  • Do your employees interact with the public, particularly minors?
  • Does your company provide a service on which the population depends?
  • Does your workplace have potentially dangerous equipment or products?
  • Do your employees operate a vehicle as part of their jobs?
  • Does your company have written policies regarding inclusion, diversity and transparency?

These questions are fairly obvious and can prompt a long list of “worst case scenarios.”  And rest assured, just when you close your eyes for sleep, you’ll probably think of one more.  That’s okay – that’s why you’re going through this exercise: So you can rest easy.

Step Two: Identify Common Themes, Audiences & Message Delivery

The next step is to take this long list and cull them down to about one dozen – you’ll find some of them have common themes like “traumatic incidents of a personal nature that profoundly impact workforce” (which would include an employee’s death, suicide or being the victim of a violent crime, non-work related) to “incidents of disaster that impact both the facility and business” (tornado, fire, etc.).

Once identified, decide your core message points for each of these scenarios (and put them in writing!) as well as to whom and how you will be responding. Do you issue a news release? Do you wait for the media to contact you? (Is it a proactive or reactive response?) Is the message the same for stakeholders as it is for customers and clients? These variables make the difference between a well-executed response and a botched attempt from which a company might never recover.

Step Three: Who Does the Talking?

Likewise, identify who should be notified of the crisis and when as well as who will be doing the talking to the previously identified audiences. These respondents should not only include the company president and management, but appropriate advisors like legal counsel and a public relations professional. This “phone tree” should include cell numbers, home numbers, email addresses, etc.

Step Four: Do Not Use Your Crisis Plan for a Coaster

Oh, we’ve seen it happen. You go through this whole, big exercise and then when a crisis occurs, no one can find the plan. Alas, it’s under a pile of papers on the desk or gathering dust on the shelf. Obviously, it doesn’t do you any good if it’s in your desk drawer at 3 a.m. In today’s “mobile” society, save a copy on your smart phone, on an external server, on thumb drives for the entire team and a few hardcopy notebooks distributed around “just in case.”

A crisis never happens at a convenient time, exactly as you have planned and most often, not between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. … just another reason why it’s “a crisis.” But you can take some control of the situation by proactive preparation. If you remember nothing else, remember this mantra of crisis communication: The most important thing to remember in a crisis is tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth. If you do this, you have done all you can to minimize the situation.

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