It will happen to all of us at one stage or another; a news flash appears in your Google Alerts, a tweet shows up on your Twitter feed, the phone rings in the middle of the night and just like that – you are suddenly operating in full-on crisis mode. All other priorities are on hold and you are 100 percent focused on the pressing situation at hand.
Whether you have a delayed product launch, a major mishap in social media, or you just found out your CEO is involved in scandal; a crisis of any kind can make a communication pro’s heart pound out of his or her chest in anticipation of the impending chain reaction.
So how do you ensure you have your best foot forward when a crisis strikes? Follow these six tips to calm your nerves – and make sure your communication team is crisis ready.
1) Develop a crisis plan in advance. Prepare for an eventual crisis, before it happens.Have a preliminary crisis protocol plan in place so you can respond quickly, or know when not to respond as Tina Cassidy covered in her recent post. This plan should include the key crisis communications leaders, executive leadership, spokespersons and where and when you will come together in the event of a crisis. Include conference call dial-in details for remote staff and a preliminary company FAQ document that can be updated as needed. Most importantly be sure all executives and potential spokespeople have been media trained and practice answering tough questions, so they are ready to stand tall in the event of a crisis situation. Lastly, ensure the plan calls for all outbound social media communications to be halted until a statement is developed. It will be imperative to monitor all chatter and take specific and re-occurring complaints into account when drafting a response.
2) Assess the situation. The most important thing to do before devising any response is to get the right people in the room, or on the phone, and assess the situation. Make sure all affected parties are accounted for and represented in the meeting, and that their opinions on potential response and backlash are taken into consideration. A crisis can impact different areas of a business in different ways and while the communications team and spokesperson can lead external communication efforts, the affected team/functional area leaders must be involved to offer insight and perspective on how their internal audiences and customers are affected.
3) Consider all outcomes. Once you have all the appropriate leaders in the room and have assessed the situation, you can brainstorm all possible questions anddevelop consistent answers for each audience. This includes employees, media, shareholders, customers, partners, the local community, social media, etc. All tough questions, and potentially damaging speculation, should be addressed, and messaging crafted to position the situation in the most accurate and most direct way. The object of the brainstorm is to prepare for all possible questions and develop answers that can be shared externally. In many cases, legal or financial hold-ups may hinder your ability to communicate answers on certain questions, in this case be honest in what you can and can’t answer at this point in time.
4) Create response team assignments. In any crisis the speed in which a company responds is of the utmost importance. Dividing and conquering all communications needs at once will help ensure you are timely in reaching all affected audiences. Employee and customer emails will need to be crafted and sent before speculation spreads. FAQs will need to be developed in response to the questions raised in the crisis, events may need to be planned to bring the media or employees up to speed, and press and social media statements need to be issued. All of these actions will need to be assigned to available crisis team members to ensure they happen in a timely fashion.
5) Issue a statement. Now that all potential tough questions have been addressed and you have deemed the situation worthy of a media response, you are ready to issue your media statement. Ensure the statement is factual, void of drama, and offers a solution or timeline for next steps in addressing the problem. Be sure the statement is then reviewed and approved by the company leadership, spokesperson and legal department. This may take some extra time, but it is critical to gain approval to ensure all bases are covered BEFORE you speak to the press.Once the statement is issued, avoid making any media statements, or responding to questions outside of the prepared answers and available facts. This will only open the door for more questions that you may not have the answers too.
6) Get to work on the big picture. Once the short term needs are addressed, a longer-term action plan needs to be put into motion. This should include learnings from the incident; address any possible weaknesses that led to the crisis and the fixes that will be put in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
There is no secret formula for handling a crisis, and no two situations are the same, so you will have to improvise and think on your toes. Just remember when your heart is pounding out of your chest and you are running on two hours of sleep in two days, this too shall pass and the media will move on to the next crisis in no time.
Are you a crisis communications pro? Have other advice to share? We would love to hear from you in the comments below.