Don’t Shut the Stable Door After the Horse Has Bolted
How to Develop Your Organization’s Crisis Communication Plan Before the Horse Skedaddles
For many of us, the beginning of the new year is a time for planning and goal setting for the year ahead. It’s the perfect time to figure out what went well and what needs a few tweaks for this year. For most of us, it’s usually a hopeful period that lasts a hot minute before the usual day to day fires and obligations send us scurrying back to our comfortable hamster wheel of reactivity.
But, what if this year, before we hit go, we actually consider what we would do if (or sorry to break it to you…when) everything hits the fan and your company finds itself in the middle of a crisis. The truth is that every company, small and large, is susceptible to some type of crisis. How a company handles that crisis, especially in the immediate hours after it hits, goes a long way in determining how big and how damaging that crisis ends up being for everyone.
The Institute for Crisis Management categorizes crises two different ways:
Sudden, occurring without warning and resulting in negative publicity.
Smoldering, a result of business problems often starting small but, left unchecked by management, grow into an OMG inferno of crisis and negative media.
According to a recent study conducted by the institute, 71 percent of crises last year were classified as the smoldering kind and could have been minimized or even prevented entirely if they were addressed pre-crisis.
The best way to handle a corporate crisis is to thoroughly plan to have one. In other words, if you haven’t already done so, now is the time to create a crisis communication plan that includes identifying potential crises scenarios and areas of vulnerability. Then, in detail, determine the best ways to address these issues. First and foremost, all communications must be truthful and show legitimate empathy for anyone negatively impacted.
Components of a communication plan should include:
1. Proactively Monitor Social Media 24/7
Develop a strategy for proactively monitoring social media channels 24/7, with criteria for handling specific external communications, de-escalation tactics and standards for bringing in the Rapid Response Team, when necessary (see #2).
In her book, “Social Media and Public Relations,” Deirdre Breakenridge recommends creating a dedicated “Pre-Crisis Doctor” whose job it is to monitor content on all company social media channels and blogs, evaluate posts and respond preemptively to potential issues. Ideally, before they gain momentum and turn into an actual crisis. There some powerful tools available to help you monitor all of your social media platforms in one dashboard. A few worth checking out are: Hootsuite, SumAll, Cision and Buffer.
2. Create a Rapid Response Team
Put together a Rapid Response Team with one designated crisis lead (usually a senior communications team executive well versed in crisis communications). Other team members should include senior management, pertinent communication team members and other relevant subject matter experts. Essentially, this team should be made up of people who can provide insight, power to act and critical information on the crisis at hand.
Clearly define a chain of command within the team, starting with the crisis lead. Only designate spokespersons who are trained and effective crisis communicators. Keep in mind that the first few hours are the most critical in terms of controlling the narrative surrounding the crisis. Provide your team with tools at the ready to enable them to quickly respond. Include a detailed timeline in the plan so that all key personnel know who does what, when and where.
3. Tell Your Own People ASAP
Develop specific strategies tailored to internal and external audiences. It’s important to have a mechanism in place notifying key internal stakeholders ASAP. You don’t want them blindsided by the media. You need a robust platform to help you communicate quickly with internal stakeholders, rapidly activate your people and turn your communications plan into an actionable playbook. Some platforms to help with this include: RockDove Solutions Everbridge, Dynamic Signal .
4. Put Approved Key Messages in Place
Pre-draft press releases and social media posts and include placeholders for specifics based on the situation. Remember, all communication must be honest and reflect empathy for those involved. This is not the time to pull a fast one. It won’t work and you’ll get caught. Also, make sure all messaging, internal and external, is approved by relevant stakeholders (e.g. C-Suite, Board of Directors, Legal) before releasing. Pre-crafting as much messaging as possible will go a long way in having a nimble, coherent and factual response.
5. Regularly Review, Update and Adjust Your Communication Plan
Regularly review your plan and update it to include any new information or freshly identified vulnerabilities. Keeping your crisis communication plan updated thoroughly will go a long way to minimize damage to your brand or company’s reputation well before you find yourself in the thick of it.