The most successful crisis response plans deliver all the best attributes of an involuntary reflex. An incident is identified. A crisis team convenes. The circumstances are assessed. Crisis protocols are activated. A response is developed and implemented. Activities are measured for effectiveness, and the team cycles through these steps again and again until some form of equilibrium is reached. Someone flips a switch, and the machinery kicks into gear.
This approach works best when protocols are defined clearly and a small group—typically senior executives—is trained relentlessly to apply the organization’s approved crisis protocols. But the time has passed when a few executives could speak for a brand during a crisis—if, indeed, it ever existed.
Corporations increasingly are complex, of course, but so is the concept of the brand. Every employee represents it, but so, to some extent, do channel partners, suppliers and customers—whether the brand wants them to or not. Implementing an effective crisis response, therefore, requires coordinating the work of employees and partners across the full spectrum of an organization’s operations. Achieving this requires taking a deliberate and comprehensive look at where the responsibility for representing an organization begins and ends, understanding the unique needs of stakeholders and audiences, and creating a crisis-response framework that accounts for these nuances.
1. Establish who or what your organization is in the context of reputation management. This may not be so easy. An organization is its employees, products and services, assets, resources and brand. But is that all?
From a reputation management perspective, the answer is no. Think of the organization’s workforce. Most organizations have sales and marketing, HR, customer service, finance and legal, among others. Each is part of the organization and needs to be factored into crisis planning and response.
What of the franchise or licensee or independent operator with rights to represent the brand in a local market? What about the channel partner, the retailer who stocks your products, the partner who resells your services? Consider the business partner who complements your goods and services, or the supply chain partner whose identity as your supplier may be inextricably linked to yours.
Reflect on your customers. Many serve as brand ambassadors—officially or not—or they may be beta testers or references. They may be viewed as representing the organization on a de facto basis. Each of these groups, therefore, bears responsibility for representing the brand to external audiences. Each must be considered part of the organization for the purposes of crisis planning.
Reflect on your customers themselves. Many serve as brand ambassadors—officially or not—or they may have a role as beta testers or references. In any case, others may view them as representing the organization on a de facto basis. Each of these groups, therefore, bears some responsibility for representing the brand to external audiences. And each must be considered part of the organization for crisis planning purposes.
2. Analyze how and if stakeholders may be audiences as well as channels for crisis communications. Define scenarios for each. If the first step is cataloging and defining the organization, the second is determining when and how each stakeholder is a channel for crisis communications and a partner in crisis response, when each stakeholder is an audience, and when each is a mix of both.
For instance, consider the cashier in a supermarket chain recently victimized in a data breach. That cashier certainly is a channel for communications, as customers may ask about security during a transaction. But the cashier also is an audience member, who might ask questions: Is my information secure? What are we doing about security? What is my company doing to fix this problem?
Each stakeholder group should be evaluated for unique needs both as channel and audience, and each also should be considered in light of specific potential scenarios. For instance, consider the shifting role of a retailer in its relationship with a consumer electronics company undergoing a crisis. The CEO of the company is charged with a crime. Retailers are an audience for communications, but not partners in crisis response. The retailers need reassurance that the supplier will continue to operate despite upheaval in its business. Depending on the CEO’s actions, retailers may need reassurance that they are not also victims.
Now consider the same partners, only this time the electronics company is issuing a recall. The retailers’ role changes and, depending on the nature of the recall, retailers may consider themselves in crisis mode. Now, as an audience and partner in the crisis response, retailers need different information. When will supply be restored? Might any of our customers be at risk of harm? What is the process for replacement and refunds? How, when and where should we carry and reinforce the supplier’s message? What are we at liberty to say, and what should we avoid saying? Knowing the answers to these questions, who may ask them and how they view their role in the issue is a critical step in crisis response management.
3. After identifying stakeholders and their needs, the goal should be to incorporate them, as appropriate, into the crisis infrastructure. Certainly every department in the organization should be represented on the core crisis management team, but guidelines should be developed for “flexing” the team as circumstances dictate. Individuals responsible for key channel partners, for instance, may not have a role on the crisis management team but clearly are important players in the case of a major, nationwide recall. Or, to cite another example, joint venture partners in the midst of crisis may have a shared role in defining and implementing a crisis management and recovery program. The task, then, is to identify a process for incorporating these stakeholders into the crisis management infrastructure, defining the triggers or thresholds that would result in flexing the crisis team and establishing the specific communications mechanisms that will be employed.
4. After defining the appropriate crisis infrastructure and establishing different teams for various scenarios, define the tactical methods of communication that will be employed to coordinate crisis response. While a decidedly less glamorous side of crisis management, defining up front how people will congregate to discuss a crisis, which representatives from departments or partners will be expected to engage, and how information will travel back and forth among response team members all are critical.
Each organization will define methods that fit its unique needs, but some elements are common. Communication among the crisis response team needs to be secure. There should be an accepted template for all material produced, whether or not it is intended to be seen only by the crisis team or by other audiences. Roles and responsibilities should be clearly defined. Every potential channel of communication should be represented on the crisis team, and every member of the crisis team should have a backup.
Attention must also be paid to the methods that the crisis team will use to communicate with others. When is it appropriate to send an all-employee email, for instance? Is there an employee portal where information can be posted and read? When and how should something be posted to the corporate website, emailed to partners, distributed via traditional and social media? When should personal one-on-one contact be made and with whom? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to these questions. Each scenario will require slightly different communication methods. The methods themselves will change if the scenario escalates.
5. Monitor and measure how to tune those methods. Constant evaluation is a regular feature in any crisis management plan. For the purposes of coordinating crisis response across an organization, the needs change slightly. Certainly, external metrics of reputation risk, which could range from stock valuation to media sentiment, should serve as thresholds for modifying crisis response, but the crisis team should also monitor how internal stakeholders are reacting. Are they using the crisis management material appro- priately or at all? Are they asking for more information, more clarification? In conversations with third-party stakeholders, are they veering off script? Some of these are difficult to determine—especially in a crisis—and so the crisis team must be in near-constant contact with stakeholders engaged in the crisis response to gather feedback and incorporate it into plans.
6. Address the emotional and rational needs of your partners. Addressing the emotional needs of audiences is a well-established truism, but it’s all too easy to forget that those engaged in managing the crisis have emotional needs as well.
For instance, consider a case of personal misconduct or criminal behavior by a senior executive. A customer service representative may have a role to play in addressing consumer complaints and concerns. The same customer service representative, however, may feel that he or she is entirely blameless and is taking the brunt of criticism leveled at the company. Very few companies in crisis take note of this emotional effect and help these employees go through the stages of guilt, anger and catharsis. The same companies overlook this even as they make plans to address the emotional needs of external audiences. At each stage of the process, however, as the company is developing plans to deliver a truly coordinated response, the emotional needs of all stakeholders must be accounted for and addressed.
This article originally appeared in the February 8, 2016 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.