Kat Jackson, Associate Director, The Media Foundry
Want to know the best way to make a complete drama out of a crisis? Not being prepared with a crisis plan in advance. It’s an issue most companies actually fall into without even knowing it. Think about it.
The phone (or email, or zoom) starts blowing up. Something has gone wrong, and it’s your job to deal with it.
Who do you speak to, in what order, how do you triage the situation? What gets done first rather than running around like a headless chicken, what do you DO?
Most businesses don’t think about the need for a crisis comms plan until, well, unpleasant things hit the fan. By this stage it can be too late. Comms teams and retained PR agencies are often (although, in my experience, not often enough) the first people you call if you haven’t planned ahead – the sticking plaster approach. Still the biggest issue faced in a crisis when the need to respond is urgent, is a lack of clarity.
Think about your own business. Do you have multiple offices, and therefore multiple locations to consider when something goes wrong? Is it absolutely clear when someone answers a casually ringing phone which matters should be immediately escalated upwards in an organisation, and how? Do you know who has ultimate approval of any statement, or even if someone should be responding at all? Does it need to be communicated to customers first? If the responsible person is on holiday or uncontactable for any reason – who does the job fall to then?
Good crisis comms planning is all about asking questions in advance. LOTS of questions. Anyone reading this who has spoken to their comms teams or agency when the pressure is on, knows that what comes back in that moment is usually a barrage of questions. Its often the last thing someone feeling the heat wants or needs to hear – but its an essential part of keeping a cool head that also helps to manage a response and put a plan together.
Most companies aren’t realistic enough about the areas and tight spots in their company which could go awry. These danger zones generally fall into a few categories. Firstly, there are people crises. Then there are process crises in which something should have happened within the business and its activity, but didn’t. There’s acts of god like fire, flood, or accidents which can have operational impact. Malicious issues are those such as hacking or criminal damage to the company. Then there’s reputational damage such as slander or careless comments on social media. Most of these, broadly speaking, can happen to anyone. This is where basic scenario planning comes in.
Broadly speaking, an assessment should be made of these potential weak links for any business, some basic ‘what if’ situations can be mapped out, and then the questions can start. If x happens, who deals with it? How is the process handled internally? Who knows what, when, what mechanics exist within the business to deal with this quickly? Responsibility maps are critical, including mobile numbers for out of hours access. Create a hierarchy of responsible individuals who know what to do. This list of your ‘crisis fire wardens’ should be updated, frequently. It may also not be the same list for the different types of issues which can arise.
Then you need to think about the notification process. Who needs to know, what, and when? Most businesses need to think in three main areas – staff, customers or clients, stakeholders (or shareholders) and depending on the level of the issue, the press. Gaining control of the situation and getting ahead of things escalating means considering each of these in turn, in advance. Thinking through the implications of speaking to each of these is also important. Could you set off further speculation if you are not clear enough? Is the risk to the business greater if you do not tell them?
In many ways, getting the right message out to pour water on the fire can be the simplest part of this process of crisis management. A straightforward, honest and timely notification can do a lot to calm things down. Ultimately, the most vital thing to keep front of mind when facing a crisis is not to be rushed. Matters may be urgent, and important to deal with, but a knee jerk response can sometimes be worse than the cause. Take a deep breath, and think things through. This is the hardest thing to do when the pressure is on, but it is absolutely necessary.
Every crisis is different, but the fundamental rules of tackling them are actually pretty straightforward. Structures and policies will also already exist within the business that cover most of them. It’s just a matter of being systematic and having your emergency plan in order just in case that need arises. As with your fire extinguishers and umbrellas – it’s better to have a crisis plan and not need it, than to be caught out and face the consequences.