Preparing for a crisis
There’s a mass of material and books written on the subject of crisis management. This does not aim to add to that material other than in the most practical of ways and only on the matter of crisis communications.
There are a lot of things you can do prior to a crisis to prepare for the unexpected.
Get a team
Put together a competent team to help you manage the crisis. The team should be small, responsive and flexible. It should not contain a lot of hangers-on who, in the good times, think its fun to be on a crisis team and then run a mile when the crisis happens.
Your team should be made up of responsible people who have an expertise which will be needed in the crisis. This will include your most senior communications people, HR, Legal, operational, financial, security/facilities and any specialists relevant to your industry sector. You will also need at least one person who is empowered to make decisions on behalf of the organisation – probably the CEO but not necessarily.
Your team should be backed up by competent doers – people who will react fast, have a good understanding of the process and won’t be afraid to get stuck in and get the job done.
Get them thinking
No-one wants a crisis and this is one team you hope you will never use. To try and ensure that, get them thinking. They should be thinking ‘risk’ at all times.
- Put them into regular brainstorming situations.
- Get them to review crisis case studies.
These are two practical ways in which you can minimise the chances of a crisis.
Brainstorming requires your crisis team to take every aspect of the organisation and its business and tries to identify scenarios which might lead to crises. Big crises are obvious but it’s often the little one that trip up most organisations. Most air crashes don’t happen because of a catastrophic failure but as an accumulating series of small errors.
Getting your team to review other people’s crises can often help them to identify areas that they hadn’t previously considered. They should consider how they might have handled the same crisis and then review how this might have affected the outcome.
Here are some crisis situations to start you thinking about the different areas you should be investigating:
- A product recall
- A large layoff – possibly badly handled
- The resignation of a top executive
- Union strike/widespread industrial action
- A fine for any number of legal infringements
- Something that wasn’t as socially responsible as your first thought.
With every session you hold with your crisis team build up a set of notes that can be cross referenced as a useful additional resource for future sessions. Record everything – leave nothing out; this helps to build up a team knowledge and mindset.
Get them trained
Training is vital. There are three areas that help an organisation survive a crisis successfully.
- A high level of familiarity with the situation. If they have seen a similar crisis case study somewhere else and have learnt from it then the decision making will be sharper
- A high level of predictability. If they have scenario trained the situation then again their decision making will be better planned. Some crises happen because they might be outside your sphere of influence i.e. an accident of some sort where a third party caused the accident
- Highly developed crisis management skills. If you put your spokespeople through media interview training that is more rigorous and aggressive than they are ever likely to experience in real life then they will always perform more effectively in the real situation.
For them to be able to handle a crisis they need training in issues management, message development, problem solving and decision making, rapid reaction and hostile media interviews.
There may be a temptation to give just one or two people specific training such as hostile media training. Don’t do that – give them all the same training because it helps each team member to appreciate the problems that might be experienced and it also means that there is someone to cover if another person is not available.
Three things need to happen in a crisis.
- You need to have fast, regular and reliable information about the crisis as it develops
- That information needs to be fed rapidly and accurately to the crisis team so that they can make informed decisions
- Once decisions have been taken then information needs to flow out to your stakeholders/audiences including the media
For this to happen effectively you need to put in place:
- Carefully thought through reporting systems with a minimum number of communications nodes slowing down the information gathering process
- A crisis handbook or emergency procedures guide with all the contact numbers and addresses of your crisis team and first stage procedures so that they can be contacted with minimal time wasted and take fast decisions
- A stakeholders and audiences breakdown with key interests for each along with a detailed breakdown of all media outlets and their anticipated angles on coverage.
“The vacuum caused by a failure to communicate is soon filled with rumour, misrepresentation, drivel and poison”. C. Northcote Parkinson.
Prepare background briefs
If you don’t feed the media with as much information as possible then they will fill their pages and airwaves with information from elsewhere; that may be the competition, rumours or malicious gossip.
So get all your background briefs in place and in a state where they can be issued quickly. These should include:
- Key information about your organisation (similar to the Press Pack), history, numbers of employees, product range, turnover etc
- More detailed organisational information; how many departments, numbers of sites, UK based or worldwide, partners, markets etc
- If the crisis is likely to be to do with a product then information about each product, how many are produced, where they are produced, size, shape, colours, volume and any other key statistics that help the media to give more information that is everyday and normal
- Don’t forget photographs or perhaps even short media clips that they can use freely.
The more information you can feed the media which is of an everyday nature to show that most of the time there is no crisis; whilst at the same time helping them to explain what might have gone wrong then the better.
When the media have information they will use it and the will feel more disposed towards you because you have been helpful even in these difficult times.
One final thought – briefs means exactly that; your background briefs should be short, concise and packed full of facts and figures, diagrams, charts and not lots of words.
Crises are always about people and therefore your team should have good people management skills. Increasingly in our chat room based internet dominated world means that you should add a further level of sophistication to your preparing for a crisis planning.
- Establish a process that monitors what news groups and chat rooms are saying about you. It may help you to identify a crisis in the making, but it will also help to understand their perception of you as you enter any crisis(1)
- Either allocate a part of your website (probably within the news/media section) or create a ‘dark site’ which is a bespoke website created to address crisis management when it happens
- Think about how you can communicate with your audiences, you might consider a formal blog, bulletin board, dedicated email, RSS feeds and presence on chat rooms such as Twitter and Facebook. Some organisations fear the idea that their website could be used for criticism against them – we would argue that it is better to know what is being said about you and take appropriate action to address that criticism than to be ignorant to stakeholder sentiment.
There is a big difference between knowing the theory and making it happen. For help in implementing your communications practices email us now.
(1) See the blog entry on Sentiment Analysis