Here a crisis, there a crisis…

Everywhere a crisis?  The news cycle seems to take us from one crisis to another…. sometimes close to home, other times far away, but brought closer to us by the global, 24/7 news cycle. In an instant, with the red banner of “breaking news” we can be taken around the world to the site of a tsunami, a mass shooting, a devastating weather situation, or a salmonella outbreak. Usually, while the situation may touch our heart, it does not require us to take any corrective action.

But one day, it may. And, if it did, would you, and your company, be ready? Will you have a tight plan already in place on how you will handle the insistent call from a reporter for a statement, the television camera outside your door, or at your home; the phones ringing, the emails stacking up, and the steady din of social media.

Do you remember any of these scenarios?  A patient is the victim of wrong side surgery, and it’s not the first time this has happened. Customers with food poisoning from tainted seafood. The treasurer of an organization indicted for embezzlement. An employee’s spouse brings domestic abuse and violence into the office. A worker sustains an injury due to equipment failure. A teacher is arrested for DUI. A 100 year flood takes out an entire mall.

These are all real occurrences in RI over the last few years. While they run the gamut in severity, they share one key element – there was a crisis unfolding, in a moment’s notice, and it was one person’s ultimate responsibility to know what to do. Words had to be written. A trained spokesperson had to be chosen. Legal consult had to take place. A position had to be decided upon. Internal communication needed to happen and it’s never fast enough, followed by rapid response to the external audiences.

Ask yourself this: would YOU be ready? Do you have a Crisis Communication Plan? Is it up to date? Do you review it yearly? Here are some components you should think about so that you will be ready if something truly negative, big or small, comes your way.

  1. Plan ahead. The time to plan for a crisis is before you have one.
  2. Spokesperson. Usually, but not always, the CEO. And a backup spokesperson. Who will be the “face” of your company to the public, to your employees, and to the media? Who will stand with you, who are your allies?
  3. Your crisis communications team. This team should have total access up and down the chain of command.
  4. Your message. What you will say? How you will say it? Will you need specific, current documents?  Audio visual such as photos, charts, printed materials, etc.  Do you need video conferencing?
  5. Control the conversation. Speak first to your inner audience to bring everyone on the same page.  Develop a question and answer mechanism. Speak early and speak often. Never leave people wondering in silence – that is when assumptions get made, and usually they are wrong.
  6. The media. You are at their mercy. Avoid “off the record” or reporter “exclusives” – these can be used, but you should have professional advice in doing so. A good PR person has trusted allies in the media, built over time and with experience.
  7. More media…. Remember, each media outlet has unique needs. Radio needs short soundbites.  Television needs visual. Print will usually follow broadcast in deadline, and want more in depth, new information. Online media have their own needs, too. Showing knowledge and experience when dealing with the media positions you as professional in handling the situation.
  8. Social media. Get on top of this quickly. You will want a brief statement acknowledging the issue, letting people know when they will hear from you again. Monitor the broader social media outlets – in today’s world, this is the easiest way for your issue to “go viral” in a matter of minutes.
  9. Ethics. Usually, the most honest, the most transparent, the better. You will have to decide quickly on full disclosure, or not, and how will you state why not and when more information can be forthcoming.
  10. After it’s over – it’s not over. Recovery planning and moving forward – the last step in your plan.
  11. Remember, too, that crises aren’t always public – they can be wrapped around pending legislation, or a looming financial crisis, a possible union strike, etc. The percolating before the public exposure is still very much a crisis requiring planning.

The last point I’d make about Crisis Communications Planning is you are not alone. There are experienced professionals to help you. Ideally, you already know who that person or firm is, and they will not have a learning curve to get to know you or your business – they will be able to jump in, fully accessible, and in a crisis that means 24/7, home phone, cell phone, immediate text messaging & email access, and right by your side.

Remember, a crisis is not something that happens only to someone else. Usually, it is not a question of if, but a question of when. Be ready with your plan, your people, and tackle it head on, then move strategically forward. People will watch how you handle yourself under fire, and if you do it effectively, you will earn respect and admiration from both your internal and external audiences.

Remember the flooding of the Warwick Mall? A press conference standing knee high in water? Showing the awful damage. Telling it as it was, giving some sense of timeframe for rebuilding, one that no one wanted to believe was true; speaking to the welfare of the employees and how they would handle loss of wages, exterior signage with slogans heralding the rebuilding, an up to date website, immediate access, community visibility of the CEO, periodic radio interviews, and a celebration at every stepping stone in recovery. I can still remember the utter devastation, and the steady CEO in a suit and bright orange tie with the Governor and congressional delegation by his side. Some people just do crisis communications as second nature, and they get it all right.

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