Crisis Communications: Three Essential Steps

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Crisis Communications: Three Essential Steps "October 18, 2016

Do you find yourself suddenly thrust into a communications crisis? If so – this paper is not for you.

As you probably realize by now, the time to deal with a communications crisis is long before that crisis ever takes place. The Internet-fueled velocity of today’s news cycle allows no opportunity to prepare, to plan, or to mobilize. You have to be ready, or you will be rearranging deck chairs as your Titanic sinks beneath you. So if you’re already in crisis, good luck; if you’re not yet, read on.

How can you predict a crisis that hasn’t happened yet? You can’t. What you can do is to put in place the mechanisms that enable you to move quickly, with a minimum of fuss, when something happens. Here are three essential steps you and your organization can take now that will give you the best chance of getting ahead of the story, containing the spread of misinformation, and minimizing the reputational damage that a communications crisis can cause.

Step 1: Be philosophical

The first step is to establish your organization’s philosophy about communicating in a crisis. There is no single best approach. Some organizations choose a total fall-on-the-sword transparency when faced with a crisis; others put up a solid stone wall.

In general, the more open and proactive the communications, the more sympathetic an organization can expect the media and the public to be. Reporters usually make at least a token effort to add balance to their stories. A vigorous outreach effort can help to set the record straight.

But in some cases, for some organizations, a more discreet strategy is called for. If there is fault, or liability – or if the truth is private, protected, or classified – an organization may have no choice other than to refuse comment. Sometimes a chief executive or board is simply not comfortable going public in any circumstances, and other strategies must be put in to place.

It is important to consider how much damage a crisis could actually do to your organization. It’s easy to overreact, and many crises – however uncomfortable – pass quickly with little long- term reputational harm.

The point is, the time to determine that philosophy is now, rather than when the alerts start popping into your inbox. Build a consensus – will we put ourselves out there, or will we stay contained? – and make sure that you can handle a crisis with resolve.

Step 2: Look at the worst-case scenarios

You may not know exactly where the next crisis will come from – but chances are you have a pretty good idea of the topic. You and your colleagues probably know where your vulnerabilities are as an organization. It’s good to engage in a little bit of communications-style disaster preparedness.

Get together and make a list of the worst things that could happen to your organization – whether from outside events that you can’t control, or self-inflicted wounds. Be as pessimistic as possible. Then apply some triage: divide your list into what you can’t change, what you can change, and what you can handle through adept messaging.

You may want to go on from there to develop persuasive key messages contained in mini-communications plans around each major topic. It’s a lot easier to gather facts, develop messages, and get approvals before you have Fox News calling you for comment.

If you never have to use your plans, great. If you do – or if you even have an unforeseen situation that nevertheless benefits from the pre-thinking that went into your worst-case scenario exercise – you’ll be glad you don’t have to start from scratch.

Step 3: Follow the protocol

A lot has to be done when a crisis hits, and there’s no time to decide who will do it.

Someone has to prepare messaging. Someone has to approve it. Someone has to provide legal review. Someone has to take press calls or make press statements. Someone has to monitor the media. Someone may have to communicate with customers, members, board members, or employees. Someone may have to talk to political leaders.

Hint: the smaller the team, the faster it can move. But in any case, it is best to have roles and responsibilities designated in advance.

Setting up a “crisis communications protocol” is a good idea. It can spell out exactly who is responsible for which function, what kinds of approval chains are necessary, and how the team will share information. It may point out the need to establish a “war room,” secure website, or other capabilities. It should account for the fact that news goes on 24 hours a day, so if the primary spokesperson is getting a few hours of sleep there is someone else able to provide the press with more than “not available for comment.”

Professional emergency managers often use “table top exercises” – TTX – to walk through preparations for hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. It’s a good idea to take your communications protocol for a test drive once a year, too. Get your team in a room and surprise them with a fictional scenario – better to fix the gaps and the goofs before you’re hit with the real thing.

These three essential steps can do a lot to prepare you for a communications crisis. Be careful not to fall victim to organizational blind spots, however. It may be worth your while to engage an outside crisis communications specialist that can challenge your thinking, help identify missing pieces, and apply lessons learned from crisis communications situations facing other organizations and industries.

One healthcare organization recently found itself drawn into the controversy caused by tainted steroids sold by a compounding pharmacy. Although the organization had not purchased or administered any of the tainted steroids, it had used other types of drugs obtained from the same manufacturer. For a time it was not known whether patients were at risk. Although the situation could not have been foreseen, the organization had a protocol in place and was able to stand up a call center in a matter of hours. The processes to gather information, create statements, and prepare spokespersons were implemented in short order. Fortunately, no contamination was found in any of the pharmaceuticals that the organization had used; no patients were harmed. Good preparation enabled the organization to mobilize quickly and feel as prepared as possible for a harrowing situation.

With or without outside help, taking the three essential steps of establishing your organization’s philosophy about communicating in a crisis, preparing plans to address each major communications vulnerability, and developing a communications protocol can put your organization in a much stronger position when a crisis hits.

Crisis Communications: Three Essential Steps

Don’t get caught rearranging deck chairs as your Titanic sinks beneath you. Here are three steps every organization should take – before a communications crisis hits.

Crisis Communications: Three Essential Steps

Define your philosophy. Assess your vulnerabilities. Develop a protocol. PCI’s communications strategists recommend three steps to harden your organization against a communications crisis.

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