Part one of a two-part series
Crisis: Any situation that is threatening or could threaten to harm people or property, seriously interrupt business, significantly damage reputation and/or negatively impact the bottom line.
Every organization is vulnerable to crises. The days of playing ostrich are gone. You can play, but your stakeholders will not be understanding or forgiving because they've watched what happened with Fukushima, Penn State/Sandusky, BP/Deepwater and Wikileaks.
If you don't prepare, you will incur more damage. When I look at existing crisis management-related plans while conducting a vulnerability audit (the first step in crisis preparedness), what I often find is a failure to address the many communications issues related to crisis/disaster response. Organizational leadership does not understand that, without adequate internal and external communications, using the best-possible channels to reach each stakeholder group:
- Operational response will break down.
- Stakeholders will not know what is happening and quickly become confused, angry, and negatively reactive.
- The organization will be perceived as inept, at best, and criminally negligent, at worst.
- The length of time required to bring full resolution to the issue will be extended, often dramatically.
The basic steps of effective crisis communications are not difficult, but they require advance work in order to minimize damage. The slower the response, the more damage is incurred. So if you're serious about crisis preparedness and response, read and implement these 10 steps of crisis communications, the first seven of which can and should be undertaken before any crisis occurs.
1. Anticipate Crises
If you're being proactive and preparing for crises, gather your Crisis Communications Team for intensive brainstorming sessions on all the potential crises that could occur at your organization.
There are at least two immediate benefits to this exercise:
- You may realize that some of the situations are preventable by simply modifying existing methods of operation.
- You can begin to think about possible responses, about best-case/worst-case scenarios, etc. Better now than when under the pressure of an actual crisis.
In some cases, of course, you know a crisis will occur because you're planning to create it — e.g., to lay off employees, or to make a major acquisition.
There is a more formal method of gathering this information I call a "vulnerability audit," about which information is available here.
This assessment process should lead to creating a Crisis Response Plan that is an exact fit for your organization, one that includes both operational and communications components. The remaining steps, below, outline some of the major topics that should be addressed in the communications section of the plan.
2. Identify Your Crisis Communications Team
A small team of senior executives should be identified to serve as your organization's Crisis Communications Team. Ideally, the organization's CEO will lead the team, with the firm's top public relations executive and legal counsel as his or her chief advisers. If your in-house PR executive does not have sufficient crisis communications expertise, he or she may choose to retain an agency or independent consultant with that specialty. Other team members are typically the heads of your major organizational divisions, as any situation that rises to the level of being a crisis will affect your entire organization. And sometimes, the team also needs to include those with special knowledge related to the current crisis, e.g., subject-specific experts.
Let me say a word about legal counsel. During a crisis, a natural conflict can arise between the recommendations of the organization's legal counsel on the one hand, and those of the public relations counsel on the other. While it may be legally prudent not to say anything, this kind of reaction can land the organization in public relations "hot water" that is potentially as damaging, or even more damaging, than any financial or legal ramification. Fortunately, more and more legal advisors are becoming aware of this fact and are working in close cooperation with public relations counsel. The importance of this understanding cannot be underestimated. The court of public opinion drove Arthur Anderson, once the most-respected international accounting firm in the world, out of business, not a court of law. The incomes of a number of major celebrities suffered huge losses when sponsors abandoned them due to negative publicity. Entire countries have had their ambitions thwarted - or aided - as a consequence of their trials in the court of public opinion.
3. Identify and Train Spokespersons
Categorically, any organization should ensure, via an appropriate policy and training, that only authorized spokespersons speak for it, and this is particularly important during a crisis. Each crisis communications team should have people who have been pre-screened, and trained, to be the lead and/or backup spokespersons for different channels of communications.
All organizational spokespersons during a crisis situation must have:
- The right skills
- The right position
- The right training
The Right Skills
I've met senior-level corporate executives who could stand up in front of a 1,000-person conference audience without a fear and perform beautifully - but who would get virtual lockjaw when they knew a video camera was pointed their way for a one-on-one interview.
I've also known very effective written communicators who should probably never do spoken interviews because they're way too likely to "step in it" using that format.
Matching a potential spokesperson's skills with his/her assignments as a member of the Crisis Communications Team is critical.
The Right Position
Some spokespersons may naturally excel at all forms of crisis communications - traditional media, social media, B2B, internal, etc. Others may be more limited. Only certain types of highly sensitive crises (e.g., ones involving significant loss of life) virtually mandate the chief executive be the lead spokesperson unless there is very good cause to the contrary.
The fact is that some chief executives are brilliant organizational leaders but not very effective in-person communicators. The decision about who should speak is made after a crisis breaks - but the pool of potential spokespersons should be identified and trained in advance.
Not only are spokespersons needed for media communications, but for all types and forms of communications, internal and external, including on-camera, at a public meeting, at employee meetings, etc. You really don't want to be making decisions about so many different types of spokespersons while "under fire."
4. Spokesperson Training
Two typical quotes from well-intentioned organization executives summarize the reason why your spokespersons should receive professional training in how to speak to the media:
"I talked to that nice reporter for over an hour and he didn't use the most important news about my organization."
"I've done a lot of public speaking. I won't have any trouble at that public hearing."
Regarding the first example, there have hundreds of people skewered by CBS' "60 Minutes" or ABC's "20/20" who thought they knew how to talk to the press. In the second case, most executives who have attended a hostile public hearing have gone home wishing they had been wearing a pair of Depends. They didn't learn, in advance, the critical differences between proactive PR, which focuses on promoting your organization, and crisis communications, which focus on preserving your organization.
All stakeholders, internal and external, are just as capable of misunderstanding or misinterpreting information about your organization as the media, and it's your responsibility to minimize the chance of that happening.
Spokesperson training teaches you to be prepared, to be ready to respond in a way that optimizes the response of all stakeholders.
Jonathan Bernstein is President of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., an international crisis management consultancy. Copyright © 2013 by Jonathan Bernstein. All rights reserved.