Preparing to Deal With a Crisis
Today, dear and faithful blog snorkellers, we’re going to look at the homework you need to do in preparation for dealing with a crisis, whenever it happens.
First, however, some home truths. You, the corporate communicator, do not own a crisis. Communication is key to the crisis management process – but so is the safety of your employees, customers and the community, operating within the law, making sure your business still does business, guaranteeing your suppliers and staff are paid and ensuring your records and data are safe.
The comms team protects corporate reputation and maintains stakeholder confidence, and is central to all aspects of the crisis management process – but we do not lead it, we do not own it and we are not the single most important thing.
Not so long ago, in a crisis simulation exercise, I felt that an operations person had been slow in providing my team with information fundamental to the external comms strategy.
In the heat of the moment, and in front of his colleagues, I said I didn’t care how busy he was maintaining his part of the business and that it was none of my concern. I was solely interested in the reputation and trust that would allow the business to function in the future, and that his duty was to help me achieve my goals. Needless to say, backs went up, and the situation has a couple of ugly moments.
I still believe I was right – but I had made the mistake of forgetting that comms works in tandem with all the other strands of crisis management. I’ll come back to the issue of who owns the crisis and how it might work in another post, but in the meantime, remember that, in all your preparation (as outlined below) you should involve others. It’ll make it easier later.
In preparation, these are the things you should consider:
Scenario planning – what are the issues that could affect your company, and how would your company be affected if one (or more) of them became reality? Make a bullet-point list of all of them.
Reserve statements and Q&A – bear in mind that when a crisis strikes, you will not have all the facts and you will not have had time to assess the situation. You may, however (dependent on the nature of the crisis), be expected to communicate immediately, without access to a spokesperson, or any form of approval process. Create a holding statement, or statements, if necessary leaving gaps for names and places, and get approval in advance. All the holding statement needs to do is acknowledge that something is happening, accept that information needs to be gathered and promise to issue further details within a specified timeframe. Looking at your scenario list, you should also be able to make a start on a generic Q&A document, which can be approved in advance. This will need updating on a regular basis.
Equipment and location – what will you need to run a communications centre? Computers, telephones, fax machines, whiteboards, headed paper, plain paper, envelopes, plastic folders, pens, staplers, desks, chairs – make a list. Bear in mind that your office may not be accessible – where would you go, and does that location have all the things you need?
Spokespeople and contact details – if you’re unlucky enough to face a crisis with immediate media interest, your reserve statements will only hold for so long – probably about half an hour – before you need to give a more detailed briefing. At this point, the media will want to hear from someone who isn’t part of the comms team – preferably a senior executive. You should create a bank of senior spokespeople, media trained and familiar with the crisis comms plan, on a rota and ready to be contacted at any time during their ‘on-call’ period. The comms team, the spokespeople and all those involved in the crisis management process should have a copy of the rota and a full contact list, containing the entire team’s contact details.
Holding and waiting areas – in that case of a full-blown crisis (especially one involving destruction of property or loss of life) the media are likely to be there before the emergency services, closely followed by the general public. You cannot afford to have either group simply milling around – they will inevitably stray into areas that may be unsafe, or restricted and they will ask questions that people may not be able to answer. You will need to provide areas where both groups can wait – if possible separately. Again, remember that your buildings may not be accessible – is there an alternative?
This is simply a starter. You will probably think of other things that you need to have, or need to do. Also bear in mind that, in the case of crisis involving death and/or destruction, you’ll be working with the emergency services, who have a tendency to take over. Be prepared, but also be flexible.
Next time, we’ll look at who owns the crisis in more detail, and who should be involved.