Updated: Oct 13, 2020
How to prepare for a crisis, what to do when it happens, and how to move on after the fact.
Earlier this week, I shared a video explaining how to prepare for and react to a crisis in terms of external communication. I also talked about recommended follow-up afterwards to help you be better prepared for next time. You can find this video on any of my social media pages linked in the footer.
1. Establish a process before a crisis.
The first step in planning what process you will use in a crisis is to establish roles a responsibilities. Who will be your spokesperson(s)? Who clears external messaging prior to releasing information? What groups need to meet to ensure the information you're releasing is accurate and timely? These are all important questions to consider BEFORE a crisis. Establishing roles and responsibilities in the midst of a crisis is possible, but it's much smoother and easier to do so ahead of time. It also saves you valuable time when things aren't going as planned.
Next, re-visit your organization's core messaging. What are your values and priorities? These should remain unchanged no matter the situation, but your audience needs to be reminded that you are working toward the same goals you always have been. Before placing blame, or trying to control any damage, remember what your big picture goals and objectives are. When an audience hears this is still your focus, they will be one step closer to accepting that you've suffered an unexpected setback, and are capable of moving on.
Avoid trying to plan where external questions and requests for information will come from. Journalists and your stakeholders will call, e-mail, and inquire about the crisis in person. They will also reach out to anyone they are able to. Instead of telling members of your team not to respond or to avoid questions, give them guidance about who to refer these questions to, or how to answer appropriately.
Training is key! Establishing a plan for a crisis is useful, but it's much more effective if everyone in your organization understands what their role is ahead of time. The only way to accomplish that is by sharing your plan, conducting training, and being open to questions and discussion. When your team has an understanding of the crisis communication process, they'll have less questions when it's time to execute.
2. When a crisis does occur
Something has happened that threatens your reputation, and in turn, that likely threatens your bottom line. What now? You have a plan. Your people understand the process. It's time to put that into action with three things in mind; SPEED, TRANSPARENCY, and ACCURACY.
Speed: This one is a balancing act. In the first hour of a situation, you're probably trying to gather information about what happened, and assessing which parts of the crisis matter most to your audience and to you. Wait too long, and a narrative will certainly emerge without your input (never a good thing). Don't take enough time to understand what happened, and you will likely find yourself sharing inaccurate information, or getting "caught" by journalists not knowing key facts you should have gathered prior to an interview. Gather facts for your public statements with a mindset focused on your audience. What would I want to know if I were a key stakeholder? Don't be afraid to say you're still investigating or gathering information if that's the case. In a crisis where more information continues to become available, consider addressing journalists on a schedule such as hourly, daily, or simply when more information is available. It helps a lot to say "we will hold another press conference at the same time tomorrow to provide you with updated information on this case."
Transparency: It's human nature in many scenarios to explain what is public knowledge, but try to stay quiet about additional details which are less than flattering. This is another balancing act. Overdisclosing (especially early in a crisis) can cause more problems than necessary. Trying to cover up the ugly stuff just because the public doesn't know yet is also a recipe for disaster. Transparency is a judgement call. How much does the audience need to know in order to understand what went wrong? What are you doing to fix it? How will the situation impact them? Use those questions to guide your decision making in what to disclose. If you use that method, and are asked later why you didn't disclose an obscure fact the media gets their hands on, it becomes easier to explain that you disclosed all information relevant to your audience.
Accuracy: Don't be so worried about accuracy that you find it impedes your speed regarding a public release of information (see first bullet on speed). However, it's important to think ahead and have accurate answers. This goes back to the question, "what is relevant to my audience?" If you keep what they need and want to know in the front of your mind, it will help your accuracy tremendously. Don't have an estimated dollar figure yet with regard to how this will affect your quarterly earnings? That's probably OK. You don't know how many people were killed or injured in an accident? That's usually not OK. These are broad examples, but consider what your audience will want to know, and what journalists will generally ask. Decide what you're OK with saying you're not sure of yet, and what you feel you need to have good data on prior to answering questions.
3. After a crisis / during a break in longer scenarios
Did everything go well with your crisis communication process? Looking back, do you see areas you could improve on in the future? These are very important questions to ask when the dust settles. You can leverage the good and the bad from how you handled external communication in a crisis.
Did we do more damage ourselves than the crisis did to begin with? This is a hard question to talk about, but essential. Looking at how you responded to a crisis with this question in mind can help you to determine if any of your crisis communication practices need to be eliminated or adjusted.
What is the response from your key stakeholders? Whose opinion matters? Remember your goals and objectives here. Consider carefully whose opinions matter, and whose may not. We've all heard the phrase "you can't make everyone happy" and that's important to remember in these situations. Ask key stakeholders for their honest opinion, and find out what they think. Who is essential to your success, and what is their take? Don't fixate on social media warriors who may be beating you up in the digital realm, but will likely disappear as quickly as they surfaced.
Lastly, circle back and adjust your crisis communication process as necessary. Update your plan and talk about it with your team again. Now that your planning and training has been tested in real life, it holds more credibility. Don't forget to talk about the things you did well. It's easy to fixate on the areas where you need to improve, but don't miss out on the opportunity to harness a great technique that was proven effective during a crisis.
Miller Public Relations offers crisis communication planning and training for your organization (in person or remotely). Call for a quote today!