Think for a few minutes about some of the crises that occurred in 2017. First there was Hurricane Harvey that made landfall in Texas. Then came Hurricane Irma that tore through Florida. Next came Hurricane Maria that caused widespread damage in Puerto Rice. And, finally, there was Hurricane Nate that slammed into Louisiana. While millions on the east coast recovered from damaging winds and water, millions on the west coast took refuge from massive wildfires that raged across Northern California. Amid these natural disasters, the nation mourned when a man shot and killed 58 people at a country-music concert in Las Vegas. What do each of these have in common from a business standpoint? Aside from causing mass destruction and anguish, they all highlight the need to have crisis communications and business continuity plans in place before a crisis hits.
Crisis communications: Thinking ahead
We’re willing to bet that crisis communications planning isn’t at the top of your “to do” list. Probably because most of us have enough real-life situations to deal with that it may seem impossible to find time to think about the “what if” scenarios. Yet, we know from experience that crisis communications planning is one of your organization’s single most valuable assets. But it’s only worth something if it’s done right—and at the right time. This means involving staff ahead of time and practicing for all those “what ifs.”
If your organization has never been at the center of a crisis, consider yourself lucky. Many companies—including some of the world’s most recognizable brands—have had something that has gone wrong that put their reputation on the line. It could be a product recall. Or a safety issue. Or an incident where a patient received the wrong medication. Whatever the situation, it’s crucial to have a plan that tells leaders and staff how to react. Because how well you respond—in time and tone—impacts how well people think you handled it. And when we say people, we don’t just mean customers. We mean your suppliers, vendors, elected officials, and most importantly, your employees. Don’t lose sight of the fact that how you handle a crisis publicly has a significant impact on your employees. Handled poorly, a crisis can reduce your company value, impacting employees’ livelihoods. It can also impact your reputation, negatively influencing employee retention and recruitment.
This is particularly true for organizations that must prepare for issues caused by Mother Nature or other careless acts. Hospitals, city and state governments, and police and fire departments are a few in this category. Hospitals and law enforcement officials practice emergency response on a regular basis. These drills help ensure they’re ready to handle situations like the active shooter in Las Vegas. And although you never really know how you’ll react until you’re in the throes of a crisis, it’s important to practice appropriate responses ahead of time so you can spring into action the moment something occurs.
Crisis communications: We’re all in this together
When dealing with a crisis, it’s easy to point the finger at someone else and say “It’s your problem. Fix it.” But we caution you. Don’t fall into this trap. Instead, we encourage you to consistently talk with your staff about the role they play in weathering a crisis. This “we’re all in this together” approach will help team members build camaraderie and be there to support one another during tough times. Remember the adage, “It takes a village to raise a child?” Well, the same is true when handling a crisis.
Crisis communications: Secrets revealed
So, what’s the secret to crisis communications? The secret is there is no secret. In fact, transparency on all levels should be considered as one of the cornerstones of any good crisis communications plan. Before we get to a checklist of critical components you should consider during the planning stage, let’s explore some important crisis communications tenets.
When dealing with a crisis, best practices call for you to tell the truth and tell it fast. Not just externally, but also internally. Withholding information or fudging the facts is never a good idea. Instead, you should be upfront and honest with your leadership, staff and the public. Sometimes coming clean and admitting something happened may not seem like a good option. But we can assure you that not being truthful will only lead to bigger problems down the line.
It’s worth noting there will be times when new information comes out that seems to contradict earlier statements. It’s okay to admit things change because of new information. Case in point: The timeline of events in the Las Vegas shooting. Those of you who followed this story know there were discrepancies early on regarding what time the security guard was shot. Instead of sweeping it under the rug, the Clark County Sheriff acknowledged the discrepancy and explained it was due to an inaccurate logbook entry. This is obviously a very extreme situation. And things are bound to change when there’s an ongoing investigation. The important thing to remember is that you must always be transparent in your interactions with internal and external audiences during a crisis.
Because time is of the essence during a crisis, it’s important to get your leaders involved at the first sign of trouble. Keeping your CEO and other senior executives up-to-date on the situation as it’s unfolding will help you—and them—more effectively navigate tough waters. Along with updating your leaders, it’s crucial to have a process in place for updating staff. The last thing you want is for a staff member to learn of something on the 10 o’clock news. Your employees are your greatest assets, thus they deserve to be “in the know” when it comes to something that could have a negative impact on the organization.
Many organizations have tools in place for sending out mass emails or texts to team members during a crisis. These alerts don’t have to be elaborate. But they should give people a sense of what happened, what’s being done to address it and what they should do if they get a call from the media. Having these details worked out and testing notification systems ahead of time will help you avoid some of the immediate stress and allow for a more coordinated response.
Set the right tone
A wise broadcast news director once said, “The minute you freak out, they all freak out.” Never have those words been truer than in a crisis. A successful crisis communications plan includes instructions on how to set an appropriate tone right out of the gate. And when we say tone, we mean both the messages and the intonation.
Some of the most stressful situations have spokespeople who appear calm in meetings and news conferences. They generally read from a prepared statement and show empathy for those affected. This isn’t by accident. Many have been through extensive media training to help them remain poised even in the worst of situations. The truth is they may be boiling below the surface. But it’s their job to serve as a beacon for others, particularly employees. How you react, what you say, how you say it, your body language. It all matters to those watching and listening. Intonation, or the inflection in your voice, is also especially important during a crisis. People are more likely to panic if they sense fear in your voice. Instead, try to use language and a pitch that helps them feel as if you have the situation under control and they have nothing to fear.
Stop for a second and think about a worst-case scenario that might impact your organization. What have you done to prepare for it? Have you established roles and responsibilities for your staff? Did you write down a possible media statement? Have you practiced how you and the rest of the staff would respond? Did you run through crucial questions with your designated spokesperson? If you answered “no” to any of these, we encourage you to get cracking! Don’t wait until it’s too late.
Frequently touch base
During a crisis, it’s crucial that you communicate. Period. A lack of information or inconsistent updates causes anxiety in people because they tend to fear the unknown. As we stated in a previous blogpost, telling people there’s “no news” is better than not telling them anything. Frequent, regular status checks during a crisis can ease tensions among staff and the public, and will usually keep the more aggressive media hounds at bay.
Crisis communications: A basic checklist
Although there are many things to consider as part of crisis communications planning, we recommend you start with these basics:
First up: Have you given any thought to where your organization is most vulnerable? If not, we recommend you start now. Think of a few situations that could have a negative impact on your business operations or reputation. For a financial institution, this could be a data breach. It could be bad weather for an outdoor festival organizer. For a toy manufacturer, it could be a product that harms a child. Regardless of your industry, think of some situations you’d want to be prepared for and write them down. Then consider how the organization should respond and how best to convey the right messages.
There are a few scenarios we think all organizations should plan for. These include employee indiscretion (e.g., sexual misconduct), the unexpected death of the CEO or other leader, and natural disasters. Years ago, we had a client that didn’t have a crisis communications plan. The tipping point came when they thankfully avoided two to three tornadoes over a few years’ time. They now have a robust crisis communications plan that includes several scenarios, including those caused by Mother Nature.
Management contact list
Keep an updated contact list that includes the name and home, cell and pager numbers for everyone on your management team. This will make it easier to contact folks when a crisis occurs.
Before a crisis hits, make sure you have a designated spokesperson such as your CEO or a public information officer who has received at least some basic media training. It’s important that this person be able to speak well in public and articulate the appropriate messages. The last thing you want is someone thinking they can just “wing it.” Remember: Stick to the script and show that you care about those affected.
Media staging area
One of the first things you’ll want to do in a crisis is establish a media staging area. This is the place where media will gather for updates, news conferences and 1:1 interviews. It’s important that all activity related to the media occur at this location—and this location only. You’ll also want to ask employees to not speak to the media. This is particularly important for those involved in or an eyewitness to an event. That’s because they can be subpoenaed as part of an ongoing investigation. Advise employees to direct all media requests to your designated communications point person.
You’ll want to create a template or two for canned statements that can be adapted for any situation. One should include language that acknowledges the issue, and lets people know additional information is being gathered and when they can expect an update. The other should include a place for more details, such as a death toll, patient count or acres burned. It’s also important to think about your organization’s position on the crisis. In other words, how are you going to position it in your statement? For instance, was the situation caused by a “human error?” Or a “mechanical failure?” Or an “unauthorized procedure?” These are just a few examples of how you might position a crisis.
Organizational fact sheet
It’s a good idea to include a fact sheet about your organization when you issue a statement to the media. This gives them a few details about the company to help them tell the story, without you having to answer multiple calls.
Designated subject matter experts
In addition to the statement template and fact sheet, you’ll want to identify subject matter experts ahead of time. These folks should be specialists in their field and be able to quickly assess a situation and advise leadership and other officials on next steps during a crisis.
They say hindsight’s always 20/20. And it’s true. It’s always easy to look at things after the fact and play the “woulda, shoulda, coulda” game. But why gamble with your organization’s reputation? Instead, we encourage everyone to actively pursue, plan and practice a rock-solid crisis communications strategy. Need help? Contact us today!