You Need an Experienced Crisis Hand at Your Side
We’ve written an entire Ebook on preparing to respond to a crisis. However, this blog deals with what to do if you are unprepared when a crisis occurs.
First off, there won’t be time to lament your failure to prepare for a crisis. Resolve to deal with the crisis in a timely, responsible way that preserves your organizational reputation and perhaps your own, too.
If you don’t have a crisis plan in place, chances are good you don’t have anyone on hand with the experience to deal with the crisis. Searching Google for professional help will produce names that have paid to be at the top of search lists. That reflects good marketing, not necessarily crisis response expertise.
Make your first call to someone in the same or similar industry and ask for a referral to a crisis communication expert – someone with a journalistic background and deep experience helping organizations address ugly situations. You need someone with the grit to tell you the truth and provide solid advice. And you need someone who can help you now – whether it’s midnight or Christmas eve. Time isn’t on your side. Make sure your crisis adviser is at your side.
Your first real-time crisis step is to assemble an internal crisis team that includes relevant staff members and your newly recruited crisis adviser. The crisis team should immediately assess the extent of the crisis and identify remedial actions. At the same time, you and the crisis adviser, in consultation with in-house communications and legal staff, should plot a crisis response.
Start with Internal Communication
The crisis response should start with internal communication. You don’t want staff members to learn about the crisis or the crisis response on TV or social media.
Crisis response should conform to the nature of the crisis. A major spill or accident will require rapid public response to compete with cell phone videos and first-hand accounts given to TV reporters. Speed is a priority. And that speed needs to be coupled with sensitivity, especially if there are serious injuries or fatalities. In situations like this, it’s good to have a crisis response team with more than one person who can assist with emergency notifications.
Some crises such as a cyberhack or staff ethical lapse are less explosive but still require timely and skilled crisis response. Many types of crises require collaboration with law enforcement, fire and rescue departments and regulatory agencies, which need a steady hand to engage and manage.
Even if your organization doesn’t develop a crisis plan, it’s smart to think of probative content that can be developed in advance and stored for a rainy day showing for example, an organization’s safety processes or staff training. Professional quality B-Roll video is always good to have on hand to give to TV reporters for use as an alternative to viewer-generated video.
Choosing the Best Spokesperson
If you had a competent crisis communication plan, you would have someone prepared to serve as a crisis response spokesperson. If you don’t have a plan, you probably don’t have anyone trained for crisis response. Dealing with bad news is not always part of the skill set of CEOs. Marketing staff is trained to pitch stories, not convince aggressive reporters a crisis situation is under control. This may be a role to assign to the outside crisis adviser.
Increasingly, organizations find themselves in a crisis situation because of something they said or did that caused a political reaction. As organizations are pressed by consumers to take stands on politicized issues, they can face blowback by opposing political forces. This isn’t the prototypical crisis with reporters clamoring for responses. This is the kind of crisis that demands a more nuanced, media-savvy response. Again, looking for this market-sensitive skill should be part of the recruitment process of a crisis adviser.
A crisis team must develop must have a bottom-line competence to draft quality crisis responses. Placeholder statements plagiarized from an online crisis website won’t cut it. What’s needed is language conveying an active, accurate response to a crisis that can win confidence among affected audiences, including employees. Effective crisis response should gain respect, not stink of BS..
Even with a crisis plan in place, effective crisis response isn’t a cakewalk. The role of crisis planning is to identify and anticipate potential crises, prepare advance materials, create call-down lists and identify and train one or more spokespersons. A crisis plan with dust on it is almost like no crisis plan at all. The real value of crisis planning is to talk about how to address specific crisis scenarios, from go-to resources to choosing the right spokesperson. Knowing the particulars of crisis response requires team discussion and teamwork, which can be forged in simulated crisis exercises.
Don’t compound the failure to plan for a crisis by fumbling how you deal with one.
Time Is the Enemy
None of that anticipation, preparation and role-playing is available to organizations flying without a crisis plan. That makes every second of a crisis response even more critical. There will be time later to assess why it was a mistake to put off crisis planning and pinpoint actions that could have reduced risk, including the risk resulting in the current crisis.
The hoary nature of responding to a crisis without a plan or meaningful preparation should be the living nightmare that jolts an organization out of lethargy to undertake crisis planning. It’s challenging introspection, not uncomfortable chemotherapy. With the right crisis adviser, it can even be painless.
With or without a plan, a crisis won’t wait. You and your organization are on the clock. You will be judged by how you respond as well how quickly you respond. Affected parties won’t be interested in your timetable. They will want action and answers now. They will be able to detect gibberish and diversion in the heat of a crisis environment. Your unpreparedness to respond will become part and parcel of the underlying crisis.
So, if you are too stubborn to pursue crisis planning, at least show the flexibility to line up someone in advance who can steer you through a crisis. Surely you can spare that much time and effort since your reputation may depends on it.