My phone rang recently with a stressed-out executive on the other end of the line. He had a communications crisis on his hands and he got my name from another company I do work with. I already knew about it because it was all over the news. So, I asked him a few standard research questions I already knew the answers to:
- Can you send me your template crisis communications plan?
- How much media training have your spokespersons received?
- What is the main message you’re trying to communicate?
There was a long pause at the other end of the line.
It was at that very moment the executive realized they overlooked having a plan in the event of a crisis — to protect the reputation they’ve worked so hard and spent so much to build over the years.
It happens more than you know. And, quite often the company survives because it’s been around so long. It may lose tangible monetary value and it will impede the ability to recruit top-notch talent — but the company is still there. However — someone pays the price and usually one or more executives end up losing their jobs and reputations.
“By the time you hear the thunder, it’s too late to build the ark”
If your company or organization is established and hasn’t dealt with a communications crisis, it will. Everyone does at some point. It’s just a matter of time. A company executive caught on tape saying or doing something offensive. Faulty product or service. Layoffs. Criminal charges against a senior executive. An environmental accident. Labour dispute. Social media misstep. Workplace accident or death.
And, whether your company, or you personally, survive with your reputation intact depends on preparation. As a former CBC journalist, I have seen reputations that have taken decades to build, crumble to nothing in less than a day. As a PR consultant, these experiences have proven invaluable in dealing with major corporate crisis situations. You can’t teach the things journalists have seen.
Now, there are many excellent communications consultants who have written about how to actually deal with a crisis while it’s happening. Personally, I believe every crisis is different so I won’t even attempt to give general advice in a blog.
Instead, this entry focuses on preparedness for a communications crisis. So, consider the following when assessing your corporate readiness:
- Have a crisis communications plan. Among many other things, this plan identifies potential crisis situations and clearly outlines who is on the core crisis team. It will have detailed plans for identifying and communicating quickly and effectively both externally and internally. It will also have systems in place to monitor media and social media coverage in real-time to allow for rapid response and managing issues that weren’t anticipated. The plan is your backbone in a crisis. It is detailed. Make sure it is revisited quarterly with updated contact information.
- Develop communications protocols for staff. Whether it’s the receptionist or workers in the field, when a crisis happens, anyone working for your organization is going to be asked questions. They need to have tools to cope including how to respond to media, the general public, other employees and stakeholders. It will also help them in casual conversations with non-staff who may be asking questions about the crisis. Given the social media networks out there, even regular people need to be treated as reporters of information. Word travels fast. Be disciplined.
- Media training for spokespersons. Make sure all of your potential spokespersons are media trained with frequent refresher courses. Communicating is a skill like all others and needs to be worked on constantly. Make sure the person you hire to do the training has substantial past experience as a working journalist — someone who can anticipate what media will ask. Ask for credentials and references.
- Conduct mock crisis communications scenarios. Practice makes perfect. Hold mock situations including media interviews. Make sure this is planned and conducted by an outside agency so everyone internally can participate. Although it won’t fully mimic the adrenaline and pressure of an actual crisis, it will help remove some of the ‘fear of the unknown’ for executives and allow for a healthy post-mortem evaluation with suggestions for improvement.
- Aim for transparency. There is often a knee-jerk response in a communications crisis for a company or organization to build a bunker and say as little as possible. This is sometimes aided by their lawyer. Rather than making “saying nothing” your default position, ask your leaders and your lawyers to outline everything and anything you are able to say to the media without creating legal risk or negatively impacting the process. You need to protect your reputation in both a court of law as well as in the court of public opinion (which can often be less forgiving).
- Hire experts. This is your reputation we’re talking about. You will likely bring in a lawyer to protect you in the court of law, so bring in someone experienced in protecting people in the court of public opinion. Bring in someone experienced with crisis communications before a crisis happens so they can analyze and report on your state of readiness. Even if you have great communications staff, in a crisis, they will need support and perspective from outside your organizational bubble. Make sure you interview them about their crisis experiences, lessons learned, successes and failures. Check references.
When you bring this recommendation to leadership, there may be pushback and even outright resistance. It’s hard for people to comprehend the value of something they know nothing about. But, at minimum, you can get yourself on record as raising it as an issue needing discussion and a decision.
The fact is that if you wait for the thunder and rain to start before thinking about your crisis communications plan — the best you can do is pray for the best. There is indeed a chance you may survive the storm — but if you do, it will be luck.
And luck isn’t leadership. It’s gambling.
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