Communicating in a Crisis
The most extreme tests ever in the strategic field of crisis communication management have occurred within the last decade. Much has been written about communicating during the BP disaster, and we have heard much about how terrible communication was during Katrina/Rita. Even those of us with deep experience in this field have been overwhelmed by trying to figure out how we would have implemented a crisis communication plan for these two unbelievable but real events.
Most recently, the Boy Scouts of America, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the Super Bowl, and Lance Armstrong, among many others, have been criticized for not being adequately prepared to deal with their crises. And, the unfortunate crisis at the Boston Marathon will inevitably reveal more crisis communication blunders.
Never again should any entity, no matter how large or small, say it does not have the time or funding for proper crisis communication planning. By “crisis communication” I mean: How will you control the media and communicate your messages to your key audiences quickly at the time of a major disaster?
Ask most corporate executives about their plans for crisis communication and chances are that many of them will say something like, “Sure, we’ve got a crisis plan. Harry over in public relations, takes care of that.”
But, just what does Harry really have? Unfortunately, in many cases, it’s just an emergency checklist with some phone numbers.
What will Harry do when 100 angry pickets show up outside your company headquarters?
What is Harry supposed to do when your top-selling product is recalled?
What does Harry tell the news media when you have to close that old plant and lay off 900 people? Or slash 10,000 employees? Or respond on live TV to the death of 500 employees?
If Harry does not know all the things that must be done immediately (and who will do them,) then your crisis communications plan is in need of an overhaul.
Most of us like to think we do our best work in the midst of a crisis or controversy, when the adrenaline is flowing and we can make vital decisions in a split second. And, in fact, many executives do perform extremely well under pressure.
But, in a world when the wrong split-second decision can cost a company millions from negative publicity, not being prepared isn’t worth the risk — to executives or the companies they work for.
That official company crisis management plan may include a lot of the right ingredients such as a company spokesperson, crisis team members, a list of telephone numbers and perhaps even a list of potential crises. It might even hint as to who is to do what in a crisis. Undoubtedly, most will include a phrase like “never say ‘no comment’ and always answer reporters’ telephone calls.”
A crisis communication plan should include all these points and a lot more. But crisis plans, for the most part, are just too broad. At the very best, they are merely the starting point for handling a crisis.
What is an Executive to Do?
For starters, if your organization has a crisis plan, dust it off and take a look at it. If you do not have one — and you are not alone — it is time to start thinking seriously of developing one.
It may be something you can do internally, or you may want to bring in some outside expertise. It depends on your internal capabilities and how important the plan is to you. It has been our experience that even major organizations with large public relations staffs often need the outside objectivity and expertise they can get from trained crisis management professionals. Experience is by far the best teacher in dealing with crises, but gaining that experience on the job is too dangerous for a business with its reputation and financial future on the line. Usually it makes sense to go to people who already have the experience; professional crisis communicators.
However you choose to design your crisis plan, you should start by thinking of all the things that could pose a crisis to your organization. Crises are nondiscriminatory. They can hit any of us, and when we least expect them. We certainly know that now.
Some crises arise because of a conscious business decision on your part. You make the decision knowing it will create public relations problems. Plant closings, layoffs — these fall into that category. Other crises are beyond your control — fires, recalls, or sabotage for example.
But whether or not you can plan on a particular crisis, you can always prepare for one.
Boy Scout Motto: “Be Prepared”
For instance, if you are in the chemical manufacturing business and a chemical spill is a possibility, assume you will have one and draw up a plan on how to handle it. Sure, you cannot plan for every detail, but some work now will prevent a lot of headaches and save precious time later.
What is the worst thing that can happen to your organization? How will you deal with it? If there is even a slight chance that it could happen, assume that it will and write it into your communication plan.
When my clients start getting into details and ask what they should include in their list of potential crises, my usual response is: Think of a crisis as anything that can happen to your organization that could generate negative publicity. A crisis does not have to be an explosion or strike. It can be as simple as a real estate transaction, major employee theft in corporate headquarters or an angry employee on a killing spree.
Once you get a handle on what a crisis is, then you can start thinking of how to deal with it. That is where the plan comes in.
When the reporters and photographers are at your office door, you will not have the time to start figuring out who is in charge, what to say and who will say it. A crisis plan is a detailed document that provides management with a “general” methodology to handle “general” crises. What a crisis plan isn’t is a complete plan to deal with every specific crisis. You cannot write a plan to handle every crisis because each one is going to be different. A good plan works because it forces a crisis management team to take actions to handle specific problems associated with a specific crisis.
Like every other plan, a crisis plan has to have a trigger. When a crisis hits, there has to be a reporting process that moves it to the team leader in a matter of minutes. The team leader then needs to activate the team immediately. In a crisis, time is a luxury you never have.
Before a specific crisis occurs, you can be certain that not even the best of crisis plans will include everything you need to handle the situation. So, pick your team well. The team leader should be someone who knows the organization inside and out and has the authority and clear channels to get to the top when he needs to. Name one person to be your company spokesperson, and name a backup. In a crisis, you need to speak with only one voice. Make sure both persons have been trained in how to deal with the news media. A crisis isn’t the time to take chances with someone who tends to exaggerate, lays blame, or gets stage fright in front of a camera.
Depending on your business, the rest of the team should include representation from public relations, legal, management, personnel, security and specialists who know the details of a specific crisis. If you have a chemical spill, ideally a chemist ought to be on the team so you know what risks the chemical does or does not pose to the general public.
Do not saddle the crisis team with other duties during a crisis. If the crisis is real, then it ought to be their top and only priority. Make sure they have access to all the information, i.e., who, what, when, where, why and how. A crisis is no time to hold back information from your crisis team. Do not assume your team has all the same information you do.
Plan & Practice Now
Perhaps the single most important thing you can do for your crisis team is to have all of them trained in how to respond to the news media. It should be mandatory that your team go through role-playing with people who are professional media response trainers. But understanding the media and learning how to deal with reporters is not something that can be absorbed through osmosis. Seminars on media relations, usually conducted by former journalists, provide executives a chance to learn privately from their mistakes rather than read about them in tomorrow’s newspaper or view them on the nightly news.
Now You’re Ready
Planning for a crisis is work that usually gets put on the back burner. That is wrong. All responsible property owners have fire insurance. Most never used it, but they carry it. The same should be true with a crisis management plan. Be thankful for every day that you do not have to implement such a plan. If you do not have one, pause for a moment and visualize how you would act and feel just five minutes after a major disaster strikes your organization.
Always remember: “When you hear the thunder, it is too late to build the ark.”
Anthony Huey is a nationwide speaker on crisis communications and is president of Reputation Management Associates, a communications agency in Columbus, Ohio, specializing in media, presentation and crisis training.