Two Sundays ago, America remembered 9/11/2001 on its 15-year anniversary. Many anniversaries are celebrated. This one was not. It was a solemn look back to the horror of that day, the 3,000+ people who lost their lives, and the reality of how that one day changed America, and the world, forever. It also brought to the forefront a renewed emphasis on the importance of crisis communications.
Countries and municipalities are not the only targets or victims of crisis situations. Every business and organization is vulnerable to an event that can create a threat to their existence. Once a major crisis incident occurs, one of the things that separates virtual disaster from successful recovery is the effectiveness of a company’s or organization’s crisis communications.
There are hundreds of examples where poor planning and execution severely damaged a company’s reputation. The BP oil crisis is a prime example. The event itself, which was the biggest off shore oil spill in U.S. history, was a tragedy and environmental disaster but was made much worse by the way BP handled crisis communications in reacting to the incident. BP’s lack of apparent empathy and compassion was personified by former CEO Tony Haywood, who said in an interview, “I’d like my life back.” That single statement caused a huge backlash of public resentment and anger. And, to make things even worse, BP’s website had little information on the situation. They even offered potential plaintiffs $5000 not to bring forth lawsuits. Such a total disregard for victims and the appearance of being concerned only for themselves is both incomprehensible and totally avoidable for any organization with an effective and well-practiced crisis communications plan.
Many instances have demonstrated that organizational leadership often does not understand that in the absence of a plan to ensure effective crisis communications, both internally and externally, the following will happen:
• Operational response will break down
• Stakeholders will not know what is happening and will quickly become confused and angry
• The organization will be perceived as inept and maybe even criminally negligent
• The lengths of time required to bring events to their full resolution will be extended
• The impact to the financial bottom line and reputation of the organization will be more severe
All of this can be avoided. The basic steps necessary to formulate an effective crisis communications plan are not difficult. But they require advance planning and training throughout an organization to minimize damage.
Following are some simple steps to be considered when formulation a crisis communications plan. It’s interesting to note that many of the first ones need to occur well before a crisis even takes place.
Anticipate Crisis. All organizations should have a crisis communications team that plans and practices regularly. In some cases, this planning can spotlight some operational issues that should be modified in order to avert a crisis. Discussing and practicing best/worst case scenario responses is a must.
Identify Your Crisis Communications Team. A small team of qualified individuals should be identified to serve as an organization’s crisis communications team. Individuals from senior management, public relations, legal and human resources should be included. It is important that individuals making up the team have not only the knowledge but also the authority to make critical decisions. Other members often include heads of various departments and subject matter experts within an organization. Depending on the size of an organization and the experience of the crisis leadership team, outside consultants could be considered.
Identify and Train Spokespersons. Of critical importance for any organization is to ensure through policy and training that only authorized spokespersons speak for it. Every crisis communications team should include people who have been pre-screened and trained to be the lead and/or backup spokespersons. It is critical that these individuals have the right skills, authority and training. Regular practice exercises are also a must.
Establish Notification and Monitoring Systems. Every organization has to have immediately at hand the means to reach internal and external stakeholders. Critical contact information such as emails, phone numbers, social media accounts and fax numbers should be readily available and regularly updated. Lack of updated contact information has been the Achilles heel of many a crisis response effort. Remember, all forms of electronic communications may not be available if the crisis involves a natural disaster. Contacting potential victims by text message was the only method that worked after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005.
Intelligence gathering is also an essential part of both crisis prevention and response. Knowing what’s being said about an organization on social media, traditional media, by employees and other stakeholders may often identify a potential negative trend which, if unchecked, could lead to or worsen a crisis. Monitoring feedback from all stakeholders during a crisis can help adapt or modify strategies in real time. Organizations should have one or more people trained to monitor ongoing communications on a regular basis. Google alerts is a great way to regularly retrieve information on a specific company or topic.
Develop Prepared Statements and Have Them Ready. Full message development must occur after the outbreak of a crisis, but “holding statements,” which are designed for immediate use during a crisis, should be developed in advance. These statements are to be used as a boilerplate for a wide variety of issues that an organization could face. It’s much easier and quicker to fill in the blanks on a well-prepared statement than it is to start from scratch in the middle of a crisis. While general holding statements are a start, every crisis communications team should continue to develop crisis-specific messages required for any given situation. Statements should be simple and to the point with no more than three main messages included in each.
Post-Crisis Analysis. After a crisis is over, it’s critical that the crisis communications team convene and ask “What did we learn from this?” Specific discussion around what went right, what went wrong, where preparations were thorough and were they weren’t, and remaining to-dos is critical.
It’s natural for organizations and individuals to have an “It can’t happen here” attitude. But that simply isn’t a realistic attitude. An effective crisis plan and well-practiced crisis communications are critical to preventing severe damage to an organization’s business, its reputation and its very existence when something goes terribly wrong. While it’s true that not every LP professional is in a position to institute or lead such an effort, they must understand the basic components of crisis communications and should be ready to assist if needed. Because it can happen here.