6. Anticipate Crises
If you’re being proactive and preparing for crises, gather your Crisis Communications Team for long brainstorming sessions on all the potential crises which can 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 that a crisis will occur because you’re planning to create it — e.g., to lay off employees, or to make a major acquisition. Then, you can proceed with steps 8-10 below, even before the crisis occurs.
There is a more formal method of gathering this information that I call a “vulnerability audit,” about which I’ll be writing more soon.
7. Develop Holding Statements
While full message development must await the outbreak of an actual crisis, “holding statements” — messages designed for use immediately after a crisis breaks — can be developed in advance to be used for a wide variety of scenarios to which the organization is perceived to be vulnerable, based on the assessment you conducted in Step 6 of this process. An example of holding statements by a hotel chain with properties hit by a natural disaster — before the organization headquarters has any hard factual information — might be:
“We have implemented our crisis response plan, which places the highest priority on the health and safety of our guests and staff.”
“Our hearts and minds are with those who are in harm’s way, and we hope that they are well.”
“We will be supplying additional information when it is available and posting it on our website.”
The organization’s Crisis Communications Team should regularly review holding statements to determine if they require revision and/or whether statements for other scenarios should be developed.
8. Assess the Crisis Situation
Reacting without adequate information is a classic “shoot first and ask questions afterwards” situation in which you could be the primary victim. But if you’ve done all of the above first, it’s a “simple” matter of having the Crisis Communications Team on the receiving end of information coming in from your communications “tree,” ensuring that the right type of information is being provided so that you can proceed with determining the appropriate response.
Assessing the crisis situation is, therefore, the first crisis communications step you can’t take in advance. But if you haven’t prepared in advance, your reaction will be delayed by the time it takes your in-house staff or quickly-hired consultants to run through steps 1 to 7. Furthermore, a hastily created crisis communications strategy and team are never as efficient as those planned and rehearsed in advance.
9. Identify Key Messages
With holding statements available as a starting point, the Crisis Communications Team must continue developing the crisis-specific messages required for any given situation. The team already knows, categorically, what type of information its stakeholders are looking for. What should those stakeholders know about this crisis? Keep it simple — have no more than three main messages for all stakeholders and, as necessary, some audience-specific messages for individual groups of stakeholders.
10. Riding Out the Storm
No matter what the nature of a crisis…no matter whether it’s good news or bad…no matter how carefully you’ve prepared and responded…some of your stakeholders are not going to react the way you want them to. This can be immensely frustrating. What do you do?
* Take a deep breath.
* Take an objective look at the reaction(s) in question. Is it your fault, or their unique interpretation?
* Decide if another communication to those stakeholders is likely to change their impression for the better.
* Decide if another communication to those stakeholders could make the situation worse.
* If, after considering these factors, you think it’s still worth more communication, then take your best shot!
“It Can’t Happen To Me”
When a healthy organization’s CEO or CFO looks at the cost of preparing a crisis communications plan, either a heavy investment of in-house time or retention of an outside professional for a substantial fee, it is tempting for them to fantasize “it can’t happen to me” or “if it happens to me, we can handle it relatively easily.”
Hopefully, that type of ostrich-playing is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Yet I know that thousands of organizations hit by Hurricane Katrina will have, when all is said and done, suffered far more damage than would have occurred with a fully developed crisis communications plan in place. This has also been painfully true for scores of clients I have served over the past 25 years. Even the best crisis management professional is playing catch up — with more damage occurring all the time — when the organization has no crisis communications infrastructure already in place.
The Last Word — For Now
I would like to believe that organizations worldwide are finally “getting it” about crisis preparedness, whether we’re talking about crisis communications, disaster response or business continuity. Certainly client demand for advance preparation has increased dramatically in the past half-decade, at least for my consultancy. But I fear that there is, in fact, little change in what I have said in the past, that 95 percent of American organizations remain either completely unprepared or significantly under-prepared for crises. And my colleagues overseas report little better, and sometimes worse statistics.
Choose to be part of the prepared minority. Your stakeholders will appreciate it!
For more resources, see the Free Management Library topic: Crisis Management