Have you heard the one about me standing in the school playground having a heated conversation with the consumer affairs editor of the Daily Mail trying to keep a developing story out of the press?
Probably not. We don’t tend to shout too loud about mitigating negative press coverage. As an industry, we tend to shine a light on the headline grabbers.
However, an amazing profile and super reputation as a business is as much about tackling the rough with the smooth. Yet, many businesses still don’t have the time (or inclination) to put in place a crisis communications plan.
Every business is vulnerable to a crisis. Crossing your fingers and hoping for the best, burying your head in the sand, or even fighting fire with fire, are not acceptable.
If you don’t prepare, the chances are you’ll invite more damage. And your customers, prospects, employees and wider stakeholders will hold you to account.
In the absence of a plan operational response can break down, communications can seem disparate, and you’ll be seen as inept. The effect on the financial and reputational bottom line can be severe.
Here is our simple 101 to crisis communications.
Before the storm
Think the worst. Plan for the worst.
PR folk aren’t known for being glass half-full, however, you need to anticipate you may fall foul. Being proactive and including representatives from across your organisation is a great starting point.
Situations can be identified, and responses and approaches can be lined up. preventable by simply modifying existing methods of operation (and it’s much better to have your ducks in a row now than in a pressure cooker situation).
On certain occasions, a crisis is of your own making, e.g planned redundancies; closure or movement of an office, a data breach, leaking of an acquisition..?
Other occasions could involve loss of service to your customers, sometimes it’s loss of life, other times, it could be a precarious situation caused by members of your team. The list is an interesting one.
But by mapping the scenarios you’ve got the start of your crisis response plan.
Pick your team. Brief your team.
A small team group should be identified to serve as your crisis comms team. That usually means your public relations team, your legal support, your CEO and a group of subject matter experts.
Identify policies and training, knowing the escalation path, and ensure you’ve mapped messaging to spokespeople, whether that will be communicated verbally or in writing.
Not every issue will need to go to the very top, so make sure you’ve identified your escalation paths and agreed on the means of notification.
Know what to say. Keep calm.
Sometimes a full messaging approach will have to run alongside a developing situation. But creating “holding statements,” messages designed for use immediately, can be developed in advance to be used for a wide variety of scenarios relating to the scenarios you’ve identified in stage one.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve uttered the words “we don’t respond to rumours or conjecture” when in the middle of a commercially sensitive business transaction. Sounds better than “no comment”, don’t you think?
…After the storm
Review and adapt
Holding statements are a great starting point, but your team should be prepared to develop any crisis-specific messages as circumstances dictate.
If you know your stakeholders, you’ll know the type of information they want and how they want to consume it. What do those stakeholders need to know and then keep it simple. Try and keep your messages to three points and ensure it is relevant to customers and media.
It’s always a great idea to ask yourselves the killer exam question: “what did we learn from this?”
A review of what was done right, what went well, and what could have been improved is a must-do activity for the crisis comms team.
It means updating the playbook and closing the loop, making sure you’re in an even stronger position for the future.
Being prepared may be a small up-front use of time and resource, but it pays back when the worst does happen.
If you want to discuss a crisis comms plan with our PR and reputation team, we’d love to give you an hour of our time.