Rosemary Plorin

In A Crisis, You Need These 8 Communication Tools

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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?

Before Putting Your Best Foot Forward, Wipe Your Shoes

By Rosemary Plorin

If you’ve ever put your house on the market, you know a thing or two about staging a home. Before you invite prospective homebuyers across your threshold and show them around your — or perhaps, soon to be their — domain, you need to make sure every square inch is in tip-top shape. No stains on the carpet, no scratches on the walls, no strange odors wafting up from the basement — heck, no dust in the corners, even.

Branding a business, nonprofit or government entity isn’t all that different from selling a house. Audiences don’t actually get to peek into your organization’s closets or sift through the dirty laundry, to be sure. But, if they’re paying attention, they’re likely to get a pretty clear picture of what your organization stands for. That, in turn, provides them with a frame of reference — a benchmark by which they can compare your organization’s public face with its actual actions and outcomes.

Image Follows Culture

The key is to align your internal culture with your external brand — or, more accurately, design an external brand that reflect your internal culture. If you want to be authentic with your organization, customers, and prospects, this requires a hard look at how you’ve been running the place up to this point — prior to the start of your public-facing campaign. And of course, it requires “walking the talk” and living the brand on a consistent basis moving forward.

Here’s how to create an internal culture that’s worthy of your public brand — and how to get your team on board without making perfect the enemy of the good.

Invest in Good Governance

Like most organizational initiatives, effective branding demands support and buy-in from leadership — otherwise, it won’t get out of the gate. This isn’t news.

What may be news: effective branding also demands leadership that leads by example. Executives who merely pay lip service to a revamped communication strategy or public-facing brand can fool their teams and the public for only so long. Leadership needs to walk the talk, and boards that care about their organizations’ futures need to hold them accountable. No matter how well they’re performing on other fronts, leaders who refuse to buy into a consensus branding and communications shift are a liability to their organizations.

Put Core Values in Writing

It’s easier to follow instructions, and to hold folks accountable for following instructions, when they’re in writing. Before launching your new branding and communications strategy, put your organization’s best minds together (with or without the assistance of a communications agency) and devise a core set of values and principles that guide your organization’s activities.

Even if you’ve never taken the time to do this, you can probably think of some choice inclusions right off the bat. Concepts like “integrity,” “inclusivity,” “accountability,” “teamwork” — among other corporate buzzwords — will likely come to mind. Start the effort out on the right foot and ask your employees to share their thoughts as well – through facilitated discussions or a simple-online survey.

As you refine and perfect the words and phrases that reflect who you are and how you operate as an organization, be sure to hardwire these concepts into your day to day operations and processes. Remember, they form the core of your brand now.

Communicate Transparently (Whenever Possible)

I admit: transparency may not be appropriate in all places and at all times.  A period of crisis may require a tightly controlled communication strategy, and detailed financial discussions are rarely appropriate for all-inclusive groups.

But transparency is crucial to a healthy organizational culture.  Study after study shows that employees who feel informed about their employer’s’ goals are more engaged, positive and loyal. Rank-and-file employees want to understand their organization’s “big picture” and deserve to know about management decisions that affect their work and well-being.

The beauty of transparency is that it’s undisputably a two-way street. When transparency is the norm, it’s much less problematic to hold employees accountable for opacity — even when the lines between “transparent” and “opaque” aren’t bright and clear.

Hold Employees Accountable for Cultural Expectations

Transparency isn’t the only measure on which your tightly run ship of an organization can hold employees accountable. Your core cultural values — the concepts you’ve drilled into your internal communications from interview to orientation and evaluation — should all be non-negotiable.

Recognize and reward employees for living your culture, and make it clear that employees who choose not to embrace your values are likely not on a long career path with your organization.

Test Brand Elements & Communications Strategies Internally

It’s never a good idea to roll out a new public-facing brand or communications strategy without extensive testing. Fortunately, your internal housekeeping efforts can be a great opportunity to dive into the brand-building process and test any strategies about which you may not feel certain.

For structural elements of your brand and communications architecture, such as website layout and marketing automation tools, A/B testing can be a great way to try new ideas in parallel. This kind of research allows marketers to see what design schemes, words, offers, etc. appeal most or best elicit the desired behavior you want from your target audiences.

If you don’t have the time or material resources for a full-on A/B testing campaign, simply asking employees for honest feedback is a solid fallback. There’s nothing like a bracing round of candid criticism to dispel preconceived notions about how your brand should look, feel and operate. Of course, there’s no guarantee that your employees will respond like your clients and prospects, so this internal work isn’t a full substitute for traditional market-testing.  But it can go a long way toward identify a marketing misfire before you fully load your cannons.
Are you prepping for a public communications campaign by getting your own house in order?

New Year’s Resolutions for the Corporate Communicator

rosemary plorin
Rosemary Plorin
President of Lovell Communications

New year, new you, right?

We’ve all heard the expression a thousand times, and while it may not feel authentic for our personal lives (I’m still not dieting / working out / reading more / cursing less / etc.), office teams are often more open to fresh habits and new projects at the dawn of a new year. Grab onto a few best practices before Groundhog Day to get your team quickly facing in the right direction for 2016.

Conduct an internal communications audit. Are your employees getting the information they need to do their jobs well? Do they receive information and clarification directly from their manager, or have they created inefficient (and often unreliable) work-arounds to access the resources they need? A simple but well-constructed communications survey can help uncover strengths and barriers to good internal comms; services like Survey Monkey and FluidSurveys can provide cross tabulations by department, location, position, etc. The simple process of asking employees how and when they prefer to receive information can provide powerful information to help point your internal communications program in the right direction for 2016.

Review your social media assets. All of them. Kudos if you have a monthly editorial calendar for Facebook, and bonus points if you’re sharing original content on Twitter. But how long has it been since you updated your YouTube channel? Have you optimized photos and graphics on LinkedIn? Does your brand appear on any rogue or auto-generated social media pages? Spend a few hours exploring your company’s presence on social media and make sure your brand is reflected the way you want it to be. Better yet, hire a professional to do an audit for you and learn more about your highest performing posts, optimal post times, follower demographics and psychographics, competitive landscape, etc.

Do a brand standard compliance check. This is a great project for a winter intern. Take an enterprise-wide look at how your logo and key graphic assets are being represented. You may be surprised to find your square logo was stretched a bit to fit the imprint space on a golf hat, or that it has become unrecognizable in a reverse treatment on a black umbrella. Worse yet, you may see it in an odd color on a recruiting site – which means it’s probably been picked up and propagated on other sites and in online search results. The new year is a good time to enforce strong marketing and branding practices and clean up any mistreatment of your company marks.

Clean up the intranet. In the spirit of “fresh starts,” January is a great time to partner up with the folks in IT and see what’s hot – and what’s cold as February – on your company intranet. What files haven’t been accessed in the last year? What are the least productive pages on the site? If you don’t already have retention / deletion policies, now is a good time to look into them. You may be able to decide anything untouched in the last 12 months should be removed, or maybe the least-engaging 20 percent of the intranet gets archived? Corporate policy or regulatory compliance may require holding on to some seldom-accessed info, but also consider that stale, fallow content undermines any site’s value and potential effectiveness.

So corporate communicators, what resolutions are on your list for 2016?

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