Crisis Management: Need A Crisis Plan? Here’s What To Do: Crisis planning
Would your hard won reputation be on the line in the following scenario?
You manage a service company with 85 employees and are on an early flight to an out of state meeting. Meanwhile, back at your office, your staff is on the spot. CNN and morning headlines announced that a company like yours, in Chicago, has been caught cheating hundreds of clients. Three local reporters have already called to learn whether your clients could be in similar jeopardy, and whether you have safeguards.
The press attention alarms your normally competent associates, freezing them with indecision. They fear the media will make the company look bad no matter what they say. On the other hand, they also know that saying “no comment” is tantamount to pleading guilty. They cannot reach you for guidance, and your company never anticipated such a situation. Furthermore, your attorney is in court and unavailable. Your two senior executives grapple with who should talk and what should be said. Ultimately, they choose the least harmful course, in their opinion. They say nothing. In other words, “No comment”.
Meanwhile news operations proceed to give a local angle to the Chicago debacle. Ultimately, to your dismay, television and newspaper reporters extensively quote your chief competitor. The face of your competition’s spokesperson appears on television and in print. She details how her company always guards the customers’ best interests. She also outlines new steps to further protect clients. In one final insult, one newspaper specifically reports that your company and one other refused to comment on the Chicago rip-off.
What went wrong? Your company took one step forward and two steps back. On the plus side, you avoided an embarrassing quotation. On the minus, you did not reassure the public in any way, while your competitor gained incomparable free publicity.
While this scenario is fiction, the truths are genuine. Companies suffer through such situations. Why? Most companies expect a crisis, but have no plans to deal with one.
Here’s how to prepare.
Ten steps to create a crisis communications plan that works:
- Immediately media train a team of of about four executives and backups. This is important for several reasons. For one thing, CEO’s prefer to rely on teams rather than documents to guide them when they are in trouble. This gives you a cadre of people who know the same fundamentals for crisis management.
- Let the team take control. This team manages the crisis while the rest of the staff runs the company. The reason for all the media training is that you want all team members working from the same basic principles and philosophies as they make tactical and strategic decisions. A core team contains three people. Good teams for larger companies involve the Chief Operating Officer, the General Counsel, and the Corporate Communications Officer. Assign these team members to crises for which they are best suited. For example, consider the COO for policy or financial problems, the General Counsel for legal, and the Communications Officer for physical disasters. Each team member should then identify other resource people to assist them. Choose these resource people for their knowledge and judgment, not their rank All involved, or their alternates, should be reachable seven days a week. During a crisis, consider letting the CEO do what he or she knows best, leading the company. That makes the next step vital.
- Pre-authorize the crisis team. The CEO should endorse the team and the plan in advance. This gives a green light to the fast action so critical in containing emergencies.
- Designate spokesperson(s) and media train them. Identify the best overall spokesperson. If necessary, identify different spokespersons for different crises. If yours is a corporate headquarters with branches in other cities, consider having qualified spokespeople at the branches. In tough times, citizens prefer to hear from folks they know, rather than from distant corporate officers speaking through news releases. Media coach all of them.
- Establish valuable communications principles. These are your goals for what you want to communicate to your various audiences. Some good crisis principles, in priority order, are: A) Take care of those most effected (victims) first, B) Brief employees, C) Brief the press, D) Reassure all audiences that you are acting in their best interest, D) Remain open and accessible, E) Provide information as fast as possible, and F) Keep no secrets from the public. Good communications principles compel you to say and do the right thing.
- Establish media notification procedures. List all media contacts wherever you do business, including names, titles, phone, and fax numbers. Keep the lists current. You want to be able to reach them within minutes.
- Conduct a vulnerability audit. This is a centerpiece effort. Interview top managers and survey supervisors to catalog potential crises. Critique existing plans, if any, to deal with them. Discuss past crises and what happened. Prioritize your vulnerabilities and how to react to them.
- Establish internal/external communications mechanisms. Formulate phone trees for contacting all company personnel, clients, stockholders, authorities, and emergency personnel. Larger companies should establish and outfit crisis command centers, media briefing centers, and know how to create rumor control hotlines.
- Media train all spokespeople and officials who deal with the media. Once the crisis plan is in place, everyone should have a certain comfort level with talking to reporters under both normal and emergency situations.
- Meet quarterly, drill annually, review biennially. A crisis plan should be a living, breathing, workable document. Seasonal meetings, yearly drills, and periodic plan reviews will keep it current.
Sleep well tonight. Now you are prepared.