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Mar
30
Minneapolis
debriefing

Communications

Plan for crisis communications before one hits

As you’re reading the first few sentences of this article to decide if it’s worth finishing, an organization somewhere is in an unexpected, unwelcome event that could severely harm – or even end – its business and prospects.

Chances are, that organization has done little planning to prepare, particularly in terms of how to communicate to its employees, customers, investors, business partners, neighbors and others stakeholders. The people running the organization will do their very best; maybe it will work out, maybe it won’t.

Maybe that organization is yours.

Two truths: Even the best organizations experience crises: machines break, people make mistakes, external events intrude without warning and second, every organization will eventually encounter a crisis. Despite those realities, most don’t have a plan for how they’ll respond. Most organizations that do have a plan don’t keep it up. Most organizations with an up-to-date plan haven’t tested it recently. Many organizations that maintain and test their plan don’t activate it in an actual crisis event.

Where does your organization fall on this spectrum?

If the honest answer to that question is, “Not where we want to be,” then creating a real, useful crisis plan should be at the top of your to-do list. While that work is in progress, though, here’s a quick-start guide.

What’s a crisis?

First, what scenarios is your organization most likely to face? While every organization is different, here’s a list of some common ones:

  • Loss of key personnel
  • Loss of facilities or capacity
  • Employee misconduct
  • Product quality issues
  • Enforcement actions
  • Accidents
  • Workplace violence
  • Investigations
  • Community-wide events

What additional vulnerabilities are uniquely yours?

Next, assign responsibilities. Who takes phone calls? Who talks on behalf of the organization? Who creates content and who approves it?

Chances are you’ll run out of people before responsibilities because no organization staffs for the possibility of a full-blown crisis. Be prepared to pull in people from other departments or functions on a temporary basis and to supplement your resources with an outside agency.

Third, do the work. Here are some tips I’ve garnered from doing hundreds of these events over the last quarter-decade:

  • Set your context. There is no “winning” strategy in a real crisis. The only good crisis is one that doesn’t happen. Instead, your goal is to minimize the damage being done and to make the return to “normal” as quick as possible.
    ? ? Playing defense, though, is not the same as being passive. Play aggressively.
  • Don’t guess. You’ve got a finite amount of credibility. Don’t squander it by saying things you have to take back later. Don’t guess, don’t speculate or theorize.
  • Gather facts. Monitor mainstream and social media. Listen to what your employees, clients, customers and shareholders are saying. Do this in a methodical way by setting up your own monitoring function, using clipping services or outside media monitoring agencies, regular conference calls with key personnel on the frontlines, etc.
  • Get help from people who have been there. Unless your organization has a well-developed response capability of its own, consider reaching out to experienced communications counsel – someone who’s been there, done that and got the T-shirt to prove it – as a source of both strategic counsel and for frontline team members.
  • Tell the truth. It should go without saying, but don’t lie to your stakeholders. It’s bad karma and it doesn’t work in an era when every document, every action, and every statement is one click away from being everywhere. Don’t do it. Ever.
  • Don’t leak bad news over time. If you’ve got bad news, get it out and get all of it out upfront. Hiding it almost always fails, and dribbling it out in spurts only spreads the pain over a longer period of time and makes others suspicious of you.
  • Don’t waste the moment. In a crisis scenario, there’s an opportunity to connect with stakeholders that should not be wasted. When everyone is paying attention and wants to know, “What does this mean for me?” answer that question with honesty, sincerity, empathy and humanity.

Now what?

Crises are those kind of low-probability, high-risk events that are easy to ignore in the face of more urgent demands on an organization. Like many of those events, however, should the bill come due, it will fall most heavily on those organizations that neglect to prepare for such events. The good news is, with a modicum of preparation and practice, the costs of such events can be effectively reduced. It is within the reach of almost any organization.

So, get to it. Now.

Jon Austin

Contact

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