Crisis Management: Don’t Overlook Stakeholders in a Crisis: Crisis communications
Wow! What a week. As I write this, three clients are each emerging successfully from a crisis in the public eye. Three different crises in seven days! In two of them, managers successfully implemented a crisis principle that you might overlook while dodging the “bullets” whizzing by your head. At the very least, if you don’t implement this rule, you may emerge from a crisis without the support of essential individuals or groups on whom you depend for your reputation, credibility, and perhaps long-term survival. At worst, you may not weather the crisis at all.
The principle is this: In a crisis, communicate with critical audiences (and not through the media).
It is simple. When you fix a crisis tell your stakeholders directly what you are doing before you tell outsiders. Stakeholders – employees, contributors, shareholders, corporate officials, board members, neighbors, customers, regulators, local politicians, etc. – need to hear the important information from you, and not through third parties.
Furthermore, with a few exceptions that I’ll cover later, you should not use the news media to convey this information to stakeholders. First of all, you cannot predict how journalists will report your dilemma, much less any rationale you may have for resolving it. Secondly, reporters want more to have a good story than to help you solve a problem. Conflict is compelling, resolution less so.
Here is how my crisis clients communicated with critical audiences in their incidents:
The stakeholders in this case numbered in the hundreds – some in the immediate vicinity, some at a distance. Once the actions to deal with the crisis were decided, top officials: 1) provided a written explanation of the actions to the local stakeholders who, in turn, delivered it to the more distant ones, and 2) notified the media immediately afterward. This approach gave most stakeholders the facts before they appeared on the evening news and in the next day’s newspaper. Can you imagine how much potential misunderstanding and alarm this strategy avoided?
Most of the stakeholders in this case were fewer and immediately available. Those few who were at a distance were easily reachable by telephone. The communication plan here involved three steps. 1) The president met personally with the local stakeholders and explained his actions. 2) 30 minutes later officials called distant stakeholders to tell them the course of action and rationale. 3) 1 hour later the president met with the media and explained his moves.
In both crises, stakeholders thanked management for telling them first what was happening and why.
When your critical audiences know what you are doing, they are more likely to support you during a crisis.
You also achieve this major benefit when you talk to your critical audiences before you notify outsiders.
An incident one year ago drives this home. This crisis arose on a Friday. Since no news reports had surfaced, my client and I gambled that we could use the 2 days over the weekend to notify stakeholders of the strategy. (As a precaution, we drafted emergency messages for the media in case they stumbled into the controversy early. They didn’t.) Our gamble paid off, as we indeed were able to use the weekend to track down and inform stakeholders. On Monday, we called a press conference to reveal the problem (it would have leaked out eventually) and how it would be fixed.
Here was the big benefit. Immediately after the news conference, several reporters called stakeholders for their comment. In every case, the stakeholders became supporters. They told reporters that they already knew what was happening, and that they endorsed management’s actions to fix the problem. They affirmed the crisis resolution.
Can you imagine how stakeholders might have responded had they learned of the incident second-hand from a reporter or a news report? In my experience, instead of offering support, they could have said they were concerned, disappointed, or even shocked. That would have been most unhelpful and could have undercut the credibility of the client and the crisis resolution effort. Instead we had built an alliance. Everyone was on the team.
After a two-day surge of news coverage the story quickly faded.
Surprises? Launch a simultaneous notification effort.
Now you may be wondering, what do you do if you do not have the luxury of time to bring all of your stakeholders into the tent before the crisis goes public?
Let’s assume the press learns of your dilemma at the same time, or even before, you do. In such cases, immediately begin fixing the problem and taking care of any victims. Then launch two teams of communicators simultaneously. One team manages the media messages while the other works quickly to inform stakeholders. It could be frantic, but give it your best shot.
Emergencies? Use the media to help you.
Finally, sometimes you must rely on the media to reach your critical audiences.
When your crisis is immediate and playing out minute-by-minute – explosion, fire, domestic shooting, environmental damage – consider the media your communications allies. Broadcast reporters will be your fastest means of alerting stakeholders to a crisis that may endanger them. When urgency takes the front seat there is nothing faster for reaching thousands of people quickly than to have a TV news crew going live at your gate.
In such emergencies begin fixing your problem, taking care of victims, and drafting the messages to convey via the press. You have to move fast to stay on top of the media wave. That is why media coaching and crisis planning before an emergency are wise.
So, remember to communicate well during a crisis in order to transform your stakeholders into allies. You’ll need them.