You knew this day would come. A blizzard, an industrial explosion, a faulty product or simply People Behaving Badly.
The air circulation device has been befouled. How you deal with the mess will determine whether this crisis takes you to the mats or allows you to limp away with lessons learned for next time.
You can’t install a sprinkler system while your building’s on fire, so stop what you’re doing. Right now. Let’s get those water lines up and extinguishers charged with some solid crisis communications planning.
Assemble your team. You want decision-makers and doers in the room. Your crisis communications team should include someone from the C-suite, your legal counsel, your senior communications people and any outside expertise. You want a team that can develop a course of action and act promptly. Assign an alternate for everyone in the room. When a crisis comes, there’s bound to be someone who is unreachable.
Create your key contacts list. Make a master list of key contacts, including office, home and personal phone numbers, email addresses, and social media accounts. Check the list monthly and make any necessary updates. Distribute to all members of the crisis communications team.
Check your channels. Do you have a way to rapidly reach everyone in your organization? Set it up and test it regularly. Ditto for key media contacts. Include Twitter tags.
Have a doomsday meeting. Pull together your team plus anyone who is in a critical role in your organization. Imagine your worst day at work: someone has hacked your website, someone has embezzled money, someone has been injured or killed on the job, someone has Behaved Badly – or you’ve simply(!) been hit by a blizzard or other natural disaster. Make a list of catastrophes and grade it from least likely (e.g. lightning strike) to most likely (the aforementioned People Behaving Badly). Grade each scenario from least to most damaging to your organization’s reputation.
Seek out survivors. Ever seen something go spectacularly wrong and think, “man, am I glad that’s not us!” Reach out to these unfortunate colleagues. Ask them about the experience. What worked? What didn’t? In hindsight, what would they have done differently? Seek out case studies, research and recommendations from organizations such as CPRS, IABC, PRSA and IPR.
Write your crisis communications plan. Keep it short, so your people can easily make and keep themselves familiar with it. You want key messages, key contacts and step-by-step instructions on who to call and who’s in charge. This is especially critical for social media channels. In a crisis, you will need to respond within minutes – even if it’s a holding message. The crisis – and the narrative around it – will go ahead whether you’re participating or not. It’s vital to be part of the conversation. In your plan, include pre-written templates and samples of holding messages for likely scenarios, in different versions for different traditional and social media.
Practice. Do your employees know what to do or say in a crisis? Provide training to your front-line staff on how to handle conversations, media and other calls. Hold training sessions with your designated spokespeople, with video and lights. Ask hard and probing questions until they’re comfortable talking under the camera eye.
Be ready to react, adapt, and act. “Iron Mike” Tyson once said, “Everyone has plans until they get hit.” Remember, any crisis will be a fluid situation and you can’t possibly foresee everything that could go wrong. Your crisis communications plan will give you the tools and broad directions to get you through the initial stages. Expect it to become less useful the longer the crisis lasts. Be ready to adapt with the situation, guided by the key messages in your plan. Keep your team on speed dial to allow rapid consultation and decision making.
Debrief. Great! You’ve survived to fight another day. Decompress with a post-crisis debriefing. What broadsided you? What worked particularly well? What slowed you down? Get this feedback while it’s fresh in everyone’s mind. Incorporate it into your new crisis communications plan. You know… just in case.
Call in the experienced hands. No organization operates in a constant state of crisis (with the possible exception of a certain North American government). This means it’s unlikely you’ll have a lot of direct experience with crisis communications among your staff. You can, however, hire this expertise (I’m waving the Creative Fire flag here, of course). Ideally, call before the crisis hits. The easiest fire to fight is the one that never gets started at all.