Plan Ahead to Avoid a #PRFail
September 27, 2016
See the guys in the photograph? They were smart enough to remember their
umbrellas on a stormy day. I would guess the orange folders they’re holding could easily be a crisis communications plan.
Be proactive not reactive.
When it comes to crisis communications, you need a plan…a detailed blueprint for how to communicate with all of your audiences. If you have a plan, there’s no need to panic. Knee-jerk reactions can make things worse. With a plan, everything you need to respond effectively will have been well thought through on a calm, dry day. That sounds like a good idea. Why then do so many organizations not have such a document? It’s a puzzle.
Show the right attitude.
It’s been proven time and again that the way to face a crisis is straight on. The best strategy is to be honest and transparent. And, the rules of damage control dictate that you need to be accountable and respond quickly. This helps minimize trouble in this digital world of 24/7 news cycles and social media where bad news travels fast.
Identify stakeholders and how to reach them.
In a crisis, the key is to communicate quickly and effectively with those who matter most to your business. What are the most appropriate communication channels to reach your stakeholders and the public? Should it be by phone, e-mail, letter, company intranet, text, website or app? Perhaps some combination? A critical component of your communications plan should of course be a focused media relations strategy. How will you disseminate information to traditional media and social media?
Certainly, you have to be flexible and adapt to a changing crisis situation. And, different types of crisis scenarios will require different approaches. But having answers to a few basic questions noted in your plan can only make decision making quicker and easier. Will you tell your employees before you tell outside stakeholders and the public? I would argue yes since employees are your extended PR team. They represent your company on the outside as well as the inside. But is there a hierarchy among your employees? In other words, do you tell the doctors before the nurses, before the cleaning and kitchen staff? Do you tell the executives before the managers, before the security guards and receptionists? What about clients, customers, suppliers, partners, regulators, associations or the government? Do they all have to be contacted? Who do you contact first?
Don’t leave your stakeholders in the dark. You don’t want them to hear the news elsewhere because that could lead to confusion, anger and misunderstandings. Consider too if there are any legal obligations to notify some stakeholders before others or to notify them in a particular manner. And, remember that due to regulatory compliance, some organizations can’t use social media.
Prepare communication materials.
A crisis communications plan should include backgrounders, fact sheets, Q and As and suggested key messages for a variety of potential scenarios as well as drafts of all potential communication documents for different stakeholders. These include holding statements and news releases for the media. They also include templates for letters, e-mails, phone messages and texts as well as the scripted content for employee meetings, your website and social media feeds. Everything needs to be approved and meet legal and compliance requirements. This takes time and work, but it’s worth it to be able to tweak something rather than write from scratch when you’re running around with your pants on fire.
Invest in media training.
Often the most challenging audience in a crisis can be the media. They’re the ones who will be asking tough questions in a public forum. Why risk your reputation? Identify potential spokespersons and list them, along with backups, in your plan. Then make sure they are well trained and prepared to represent you properly when the heat is on.
A crisis can be an opportunity.
When the spotlight is on you, take advantage of it. It may feel like a stretch at the time, but try to look at the crisis as an opportunity to communicate with your stakeholders and the public. Ideally, you’ve been building a reservoir of good will within your organization and the community. This reservoir of good will enhances your reputation and, in times of crisis, you can draw on it. But it can only take you so far. It’s how you handle the crisis that will leave the lasting impression.
Every organization is different and every crisis is different. But there are certain truths that apply across the board. Number one…it’s better to prepare in advance. And, number two…respond as if your reputation is at stake…because it is. Do a good job and it’s a chance to boost your reputation with all of your constituents. The more prepared you are, the easier it will be to avoid a #PRFail.