Crisis Management: Be Prepared: Crisis planning
The terrorist explosion that ripped into the USS Cole in Aden and killed almost a score of sailors especially shook those of us with ties to the military, present and past. I, for one, refueled at that very port while serving aboard a destroyer from Norfolk. Our stop came 6 months before the Arab-Israeli Six Day War. Most of us “youngsters” never really thought anything would happen to us. I am sure most of the Cole crew had felt the same. You are never as safe as you might believe.
From a crisis planning point of view, I think there is a lesson in that. Businesses are never as safe as managers might believe. After a number of years counseling companies in crisis, I have learned that 1) every troubled business never really thought trouble would strike, and 2) an astonishing number of fine companies roll comfortably along without even minimal crisis preparation. This in spite of highly publicized debacles like Ford/Firestone along with plant closings, layoffs, fires, accidents, and embarrassing financial and personnel problems in companies like theirs.
Let me recommend at least two steps to protect your valuable reputation that would cost relatively little in dollars and time.
Get Media Training – This prepares essential executives to talk constructively to the media. It reduces the fear of dealing with reporters during difficult times, and prepares sufficient people to do so 24/7. It creates a cadre of like-minded managers to brainstorm strategies and tactics. The “message focus” and “reassurance” principles of media training are invaluable for communicating internally about important issues, and the skills are helpful even for routine interviews.
Caution! All media training is not the same. Be certain that your consultant emphasizes fundamental philosophies and principles rather than superficial cosmetics and techniques. You want to acquire a deep understanding of what you are trying to accomplish so that you can adapt to whatever may occur. Ask the consultant to outline what will be covered and to provide the names of previous customers. Ask the former customers if the training left them with a constructive attitude toward working with the press. Media training should give you a firm taste of the real thing, but not inordinately frighten or embarrass to the degree that it leaves you scared of reporters. You want to respect journalists, not fear them. Unusually traumatic media training – and it is out there – tears down participants in mock interviews without building them back up, so it can be counterproductive.
Finally, use the media training to identify your best spokesperson and backups.
Conduct Crisis Planning – Conduct a vulnerability audit. Poll top managers to identify worst case scenarios for your business. Create a checklist of critical steps to take during those situations. (Crisis managers disagree about the value of a checklist. Some believe that any crisis will be unique and render a list worthless. Others say you need a list so that you won’t overlook important steps amidst turmoil.) I prefer a short and easy-to-follow list. Keep the crisis plan short, clear, and useful. A cumbersome document will probably be ignored during crunch time.
Set up a small crisis management team of about three senior representatives of legal, administration, and PR/communications. In larger companies, the COO often chairs the team, leaving the CEO to manage the business. (A notable recent exception came when Ford CEO Jacques Nasser fronted the car company’s Firestone tire crisis management.) The crisis team should have subordinate squads of experts available to help manage difficulties in all aspects of company operations. Prepare a telephone tree to reach crisis leaders 7 days a week.
If you have a big company, then you may want to prepare a crisis control center containing sufficient communications equipment manned by designated personnel to reach large external audiences. (For insight into large scale emergency planning, see an earlier article of mine on the elaborate measures taken by Intel at www.amme.com/tip14.html.)
Bottom line – If this seems too much to accomplish while you are occupied running your business, then at least 1) designate a crisis team, 2) media train them, and 3) specify how to locate them.
This works. Over the years I have consulted with companies to deal with anticipated and unexpected trouble. They usually handled difficulties well with minimal extra input from me. They were ready to go and go they did.
As always, crisis communications is common sense at lightning speed. The media can trash your reputation in minutes if you are not prepared to act rapidly, so get ready.
Remember the USS Cole. You never know when you’ll be hit.