By Rosemary Plorin
Crises, by definition, happen without warning. Without proper foresight and preparation, what might normally be a manageable hiccup can quickly escalate into an existential threat to your organization.
The good news: crises have tested private and public entities since the dawn of specialized labor, so there are a lot of lessons already learned. The bad news: the nature of those crises is changing faster than many organizations can keep up.
When things head south, there’s no substitute for professional crisis management. But you can also take sensible steps to arm yourself against the unknown — and prepare for any blowback that comes your way. These eight clutch crisis communication tools need to be in your organization’s arsenal.
- An Authoritative Spokesperson
While it may seem logical – even simple – to say that an organization in crisis should have a single point of contact to provide public comments, many organizations fail to lay the groundwork to ensure it actually happens. As a crisis is unrolling is not the time to look at your team and realize that no one is on first.
This trap is completely avoidable. If you don’t have an in-house PR person, tap into an experienced outside firm. If you’re confident in your internal team’s ability to handle a crisis, designate an appropriate spokesperson and equip them with the training and tools they’ll need to mount an effective response.
- Well-Defined Roles & Communication Guidelines
While the public spokesperson is a very important role in a crisis, it’s certainly not the only player in the cast. Executive leadership, legal, risk management, HR and other subject matter experts are also likely needed – as is a team leader to help organize and direct the effort. Identify a core response team as part of your “before the crisis” preparations and tweak the membership as you better understand what kind of expertise is needed to manage the issue at hand
With that team in place, you’ll need to quickly begin communicating with internal and external stakeholders. WIthout exception, “no comment” sends the message that your organization is unprepared. It has a chilling and frightening effect on both internal and external audiences and serves as an aphrodisiac to reporters and plaintiff’s attorneys.
Avoid the “no comment curse” by developing a comprehensive set of communication guidelines. Consider how you want your audiences to perceive your organization after the crisis: decisive? caring? safety-minded? customer focused? transparent? Use that goal as a guide when crafting your messages and delivering them to your stakeholders.
- Internal Lines of Communication
A strong crisis response requires a clear chain of command and well defined roles. It also requires uncompromised (and uncompromisable) lines of communication between relevant internal team members. If you haven’t already, invest in an internal messaging system like Slack, which helpfully doubles as a communication log (see next point). Draw up a flow chart indicating communication priorities and reporting hierarchies. And if your issue deals with market sensitive, proprietary, or confidential regulatory information, make sure everyone involved in the response is covered by an NDA.
- Listening Services and Social Media Savvy
In addition to an authoritative spokesperson, you need at least one employee — for larger organizations, multiple employees or an outside consultant — to monitor and direct your social media ecosystem.
In good times, social media is a great marketing and branding tool. In a crisis, it’s a crucial real-time window into the public’s evolving perceptions, not to mention its reaction to your crisis management efforts. Online news coverage and commentary can also provide an important barometer into how your news is being received.
Certain social properties, notably Twitter, are also high-ROI media monitoring and outreach tools. According to TechCrunch and Medium contributor Haje Jan Kamps, something like 25% of Twitter’s top users are journalists.
- A Detailed Communication Log
You can’t manage what you don’t measure, right? A detailed internal and external communication log provides a clear timeline that keeps your response focused, timely and relevant. It can also help you see if some part – or all – of your response efforts are spinning off the rails. Once the acute phase of the crisis has passed, a communication log provides a great big-picture look at the entire response — a valuable educational tool that helps you determine what went right, what went wrong, and what can be done better next time.
- Feedback Loops
Speaking of communication: your organization needs to be able to receive, process, and react to public input (and vitriol) promptly, if not in real time. After all, communication is a two-way street, especially in a crisis.
As you develop crisis-management roles, assign coordinators for every major inbound communication channel: email, social channels, phone, office, and so on. Similarly, make sure each key stakeholder group – investors, employees, customers, suppliers, etc. – has a champion to ensure relevant outreach and feedback. (These coordinators likely already exist in your organization; it’s just a matter of formalizing their roles in a crisis.) Ensure that these team members have the resources necessary to respond, and that the protocols for their responses are clear and unambiguous. Don’t neglect either element: a rapid response does no good if it’s inaccurate or off-message.
- Simple, Straightforward Fact Sheets
Quite literally, crisis fact sheets keep everyone inside and outside your organization on the same page. Your fact sheets should provide clear, concise talking points on the most pressing matters at hand, as well as an objective accounting of the relevant background and facts — however you define them — of the situation. Draw up one fact sheet for members of the media and one for your crisis response team. Consider releasing a separate fact sheet (or, simply, your media fact sheet) on your website and social channels. In all such efforts, avoid legal speak and industry jargon.
- Scenario Plans
It’s not possible to plan for every type of crisis, but you can probably game out a few vulnerabilities your organization might face. Banks get robbed. Food makers face ingredient recalls. Plains states experience tornadoes.
Before a crisis hits, conduct an analysis of your company’s strengths and weaknesses; consider the crises you might experience and how they would adversely impact your work. For each vulnerability, create scenario plans covering best, median, and worst-case outcomes, along with outlines of your responses to each.
If that sounds like a lot of work, it is. But if you’ve ever watched a crisis play out in the news and thought the company involved managed the issue well, you can be sure they were prepared before crisis struck. And if you’ve ever seen an organization crash and burn amid a flurry of “no comments” and media speculation, you can bet they were caught unprepared.
Soooo … Are you missing any of the tools on this list?