I consider myself fortunate that most of my crisis communications experience has been in the planning phase as opposed to the execution. Though planning is really the key to an effective crisis response, along with responsible leadership and clear communications.
Of course, it is also helpful to have established good working relationships with all the key stakeholders. And robust reputation management and community relations programs can prove quite useful as well, building the goodwill that can earn companies the benefit of the doubt when facing a crisis.
In fact, the advice I give my clients is to think of the organization as a person. And they need to make that person a model citizen – a reliable and trustworthy member of its various communities. Again, a company that has proven itself to be a model citizen will likely receive the benefit of the doubt in the initial stages of a crisis situation. But, beyond that, actions and attitudes are what determines whether or not they can successfully weather the storm. And that is why it is essential to have a plan of action in place beforehand.
Plan for the Worst
The first step in crisis communications planning is conducting a thorough risk assessment, exploring the most likely crises the company might face. Not only does this help minimize certain risks (for example, realizing ahead of time that you need to establish a social media policy for employees), but it also helps you map out potential responses. And that is critical because you need to be prepared to react and respond immediately – to employees, media, customers, shareholders, suppliers, lawmakers, community leaders, etc. – no matter what occurs.
The next step is creating an actual written plan that details the policies and procedures to be taken when responding to a crisis – whether natural or manmade. It should also include templates, bios, and other information that could prove useful in responding to the situation, along with a list of contact information for all of the aforementioned stakeholders as well as others who might potentially be involved. And then you need to establish a designated crisis response team capable of putting the plan into action – on call, 24/7.
When a crisis occurs, you cannot afford to waste time tracking people down, discussing what to do, and then figuring out how to do it. Critical players need to be identified and trained in advance, along with back-ups – and backups for the back-ups. A crisis won’t wait for someone to finish their morning swim, let alone their vacation in a remote place with limited cell service – like Rapa Nui. And depending on the severity of the crisis, you may need multiple people to addresses inquiries being made on-site, online, and over the phone.
The response team should also go beyond executive management to include representatives from communications, legal, IT, and those functions dealing directly with stakeholders and other key groups that could potentially be involved (again, think of employees, unions, customers, suppliers, lawmakers, community leaders, etc.).
In addition, it is important to ensure that the plan and all the necessary tools and information to effectively execute it are accessible to all members of the team. You do not want to be searching for policy documents, contact information, or social media passwords in times of crisis. And you should have this information in multiple locations, including both digital and printed copies, in case the crisis renders a particular site or system unsafe or otherwise inaccessible.
Training that team is also an important part of the planning process. You do not want to have to media train your spokespeople – or your back-up spokespeople – on the way to a press conference. And simulating potential crises will also help improve your preparedness, whether identifying gaps in your plan or developing more effective ways of responding.
Training can help shift attitudes as well, creating a level of comfort in the plan that will help ensure that everyone has faith in it should an actual crisis occur. This is especially true if you are dealing with senior executives who may still cling to the false notion that all will be well if you simply hunker down and wait for things to blow over. In the digital age, there is no hope of hiding anymore. Stories will be told, even if they are inaccurate or unfounded. And that is why it is essential for companies to get ahead of the story, to take control of it and tell it on their terms.
Speaking of attitudes, they matter. Actions are critical in a crisis, but so are appearances – especially when the world is watching. So be honest. Be sincere. And, above all, be human – in the best possible way.
All too often we see companies and their leaders appear to act petty, privileged, out-of-touch, or aloof in a crisis situation. They refuse to accept responsibility, apologize, or even empathize. They can take it personally, even when it is not about them. And in an attempt to protect the company – or themselves – they are often quick to blame others. It never works. People have a tendency to vilify corporate America, and its wealthy executives, so it is best not to give them a reason to do so. Instead, use this as an opportunity to shine, to prove the skeptics wrong.
In a crisis, executives will not only have to make some of the toughest decisions they can possibly make, but they will have to do so under the added pressure and time constraints of the crisis. My advice is to always favor the well-being of the people – employees, customers, and members of the community – over the well-being of the company. This may not sit well with some, including shareholders, but in the end, it is always the right decision. Companies that put profits before people inevitably end up doing more harm to their bottom line in the long run.
Learn and Improve
Once the crisis has subsided, it is important to take stock of what worked and what didn’t. And, as a company, it is essential to step back and objectively evaluate what, if anything, could have been done to prevent or better mitigate the crisis. Not only will these lessons improve your response to future incidents, but they may even help you avoid them.
Similarly, any changes to policies and procedures should be communicated – even publicly, when appropriate – to help restore faith with the affected stakeholders. And acknowledging the actions and support of these stakeholders – including those in the community, such as first responders and civic leaders – can also help rebuild and strengthen goodwill.
Always Expect the Unexpected
You can never plan for everything. But with a good plan and the proper training, you can adapt to handle nearly any crisis that may arise.
It can also be helpful to study what other companies have done in a crisis. Learn from their experience while you consider how your company would have responded. And then update your plan accordingly.
And it is essential to remain vigilant. In the digital age, a single disgruntled employee or customer can easily become an army of one. The internet, and social media in particular, makes it easy for negative stories to go viral, regardless of their merit. And they will remain online forever, long after they have been addressed or even debunked.
Fortunately, the internet also makes it easy to monitor what is being said about a company, brand, or executive. That is why it is essential to monitor social media and set-up Google searches for your company, brands, and executives. Not only is this helpful in terms of identifying and getting in front of a potential crisis, but it can also provide valuable information that could prove useful in other aspects of the business.
On the morning of Sept. 11th, 2001, I was a senior executive at a company located 2 miles north of the World Trade Center. What occurred was not a scenario that we could have ever imagined. Nor was it something of our own doing. And we were far from alone in that unfolding tragedy, though at the time it certainly felt as if we were. You could literally smell the fires burning.
And I remember feeling oddly detached as we discussed whether to keep our office open or send employees home, having to consider both their safety and our liability. At the time, it seemed like the city was under direct attack. We also had to think of the following day, and how to best support our clients around the country while minimizing the risk to our staff there in the city.
Beyond the decisions we faced on 9/11, the most serious crisis I have had to deal with was on behalf of Prudential Real Estate Affiliates. It was actually Prudential’s financial subsidiary that was having trouble, but the public did not distinguish between the real estate business, which consisted of locally owned franchise operations, and Prudential’s investment business, which often had offices in those very same communities. To the public, they were all pieces of the same Rock – and that Rock was crushing people’s dreams.
As a result, we were working overtime to help these independent real estate affiliates respond to both local media inquiries and complaints from members of their community, occasionally even including protesters appearing outside their offices. We armed them with talking points, Q&As, and recommendations to help them proactively distance themselves from the investment side of Prudential. It was difficult in that we were dealing with franchise operators who had limited communications training and resources, but we helped them weather the storm and did our best to turn “brand baggage” into a lesson in the value of being backed by the marketing muscle of that very same brand. In that crisis, we clearly had their backs.
Frankly, I would like to retire without ever having to work through something like that again. Or any crisis, for that matter. But those lessons have stuck with me, and I am a firm believer in planning for all of the worst-case scenarios imaginable. Because, as I said, planning is really the key to effective crisis communications.