In part I of our series on crisis management, we explained what a crisis in business is – and what it is not.
In this second part, we will examine external crisis communications and how to effectively plan for and disseminate information about your company’s crisis to the media, customers, vendors, stockholders and other outside interested parties.
First, it is essential to have a plan in place before crisis occurs. Be proactive, not reactive. Recalling that a crisis is newsworthy (something unlawful, immoral, unhealthy or even deadly), it is a fatal error in judgment to assume that nothing dire will ever happen to your business and that preparing for crisis is unnecessary. Let’s also recall that a bad review is not a crisis.
Here are some tips to prepare for crisis and the external messages to be conveyed in its wake:
- Brainstorm potential situations. In the senior housing industry, for example, what could happen that would merit crisis status? Think of anything and everything and write it down. Here’s when it’s wise to go to the worst-case scenario, to imagine all the things that you hope and pray will never happen. A fire, flood? Widespread food contamination? Reports or evidence of abusive/neglectful staff? Sexual harassment or assault? A major lawsuit? A shooting?
- Prepare mid-crisis action. Once you have determined all the possible crisis situations that could occur, determine what actions will be taken to safeguard staff, residents, the community at large, if applicable, as the situation is unfolding. Which public officials or authorities will be contacted, if necessary; which staff will do what; what onsite protection plans will be activated (exit procedures, lockdowns, etc.).
- Designate spokespeople. WHO speaks about your crisis is as important as WHAT is said. Specific people should be designated – and only them – to make statements or respond to questions. Whether they are CEOs (usually the most appropriate spokespeople), department heads, marketing or PR personnel…whoever is authorized to reach out or answer to the community should be media-trained (see below). No one who isn’t a media-trained, designated spokesperson should respond at all, nor should any messages be conveyed without spokesperson(s)’ and participating officials’ approval (police, federal agents, etc.).
- Prepare appropriate messages. Case studies show how to – and not to – respond to disaster in business, but keep in mind that no response is a negative response, conveying indifference, irresponsibility, defensiveness, or worse. In part I of this series, we cited three questions that must be addressed following a crisis:
1) What happened? 2) What caused it? 3) What are you doing to keep this from happening again? Answers to these key questions should be formulated ahead of time and come across as positive and reassuring as possible. But they must also be truthful. Transparency in communicating what happened is absolutely essential
A boilerplate response prepared in advance is good practice, but also craft messages that are unique to individual scenarios. Decide which channels will be used to reach which audiences, and make sure people with media training are monitoring and responding to social media around the clock. The age of social media has thrown fuel on the rumor mill fire, and “fake news” proliferates like a contagion online. Design advance messages that deal with each stage of crisis: the immediate aftermath and post-event follow-up.
A “dark website” should be implemented as soon as possible. This is a page on top of your regular home page containing the most updated information about the situation. Any inquiries should be referred to this page until spokespersons can get out to the public or other channels of information are established.The passage of time will determine when to re-engage and disengage with the issue, but each subsequent message should be as acutely responsive and well-constructed as the first. Stay connected with your customers, stockholders and vendors throughout the relevancy of the crisis, because they are key to your credibility and recovery.
- Provide media training. HOW a message is conveyed is as vital as WHAT is said. Only individuals who have been educated on how to maintain control and composure, exude confidence and credibility should partake in interviews. This person(s) should also be proficient in redirecting (not obfuscating!) unproductive questioning back to pre-planned, and always truthful, key messages. While preparedness is critical, designated spokespeople should also be able to think quickly and clearly on their feet, should unexpected inquiries or commentary come their way.
- Establish a liaison for police/investigative personnel. In addition to, and separate from, a designated spokesperson(s), a media-trained employee should be assigned as communications liaison to sit on a committee of police or whatever investigative personnel the crisis warrants. The liaison will ensure that nothing goes out to the media or public without said police/official’s permission and will then – and only then – relay sanctioned information.
- Enlist the help of outside partners. Be they health professionals, law enforcement, emergency response personnel, educators, law practitioners (note: lawyers should not be designated spokespeople), or other relevant individuals, rely on the expertise of professionals that can team with you if crisis hits. Arrange this team ahead of time, so that mutual trust and lines of communication are already in place.
- Rehearse. Schedule a “what if” day, seminar or retreat to rehearse responses to potential crisis. Conduct practice Q&As; if practical, run a drill on actions to take during various situations (without alarming residents or other non-staff people); role play interview scenarios. Get creative imagining the worst – but be prepared!
In the next and final blog in this series on crisis management, we will explore internal communications, or how to relay information to company employees and their families.
If crisis strikes, let our team of experts guide you to recovery with appropriate preparatory communications and trusted public relations finesse.
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