Prevent, Manage, Recover, Repeat: 3 Stages of Crisis Communications


What began as a tasteless prank quickly snowballed into a monumental reputational crisis for Domino’s in mid-April. The scene: One pizza-chain employee prepares sandwiches in the most unsanitary manner imaginable (think snot, flatulence…enough said) while another records him on a video camera narrating the entire process.

The game could have ended there, but the duo, which later claimed the food was never sent out for delivery, uploaded the video to YouTube, where it instantly gained traction among millions of viewers. Within days, the Domino’s brand was under fire and the PR team scrambled to rebuild its damaged reputation—but not soon enough, many experts believe; the company didn’t publicly respond immediately to the video in the hopes that attention would wane on its own. When it didn’t, execs finally acted, posting an apology on the corporate Web site, creating a Twitter account and issuing a taped apology from Domino’s USA president Patrick Doyle on YouTube.

The jury is still out on how long term the damage will be for Domino’s, but the event already serves as a textbook example of how quickly unexpected crises can take out a brand. Which is why communications teams must be well-versed not just in crisis management during the immediate aftermath, but also in two other equally (if not more) important stages: preparation and recovery.

MISSION: PREPARATION

Crisis planning is covered in communications 101, but the techniques become dusty and, especially in the Web 2.0 world, antiquated over time. That’s why it is critical for teams to continuously revisit their organization’s crisis plan and to update and practice it at regular intervals.

“A crisis plan is useless if you haven’t tested it and practiced it,” says Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management. He notes that the role communicators play within companies is equivalent to the president’s national security advisor. “[Communications execs] are critical sources of intelligence—an early warning system for management.”

To develop this early warning system and ensure it reaches its fullest potential, consider the following crisis preparation techniques.

â–¶ Identify your weaknesses. While crises can hit from every angle, most industries have their own set of issues to which they are vulnerable. To be as prepared as possible for “predictable” crises, then, communications execs need to identify these vulnerabilities and develop plans for reacting, should one become an issue. This is also the time to get management to trust your expertise so they are on-board with your strategies when issues do emerge. To gain and maintain management’s confidence, Smith recommends:

• Focusing on the financial impact of potential crises;

• Acting like an attorney by basing your recommendations on precedent; and,

• Making sure your objectives are clearly understood.

â–¶ Leverage your organization’s existing processes. Before you dedicate significant resources to building a crisis plan, take stock of the policies and processes that are already in place.

“Regularly review your vulnerability assessment,” says Chris Tennyson, SVP and partner of Fleishman-Hillard. “Learn from near-crisis experiences, match crisis scenarios with policies and procedures, and then introduce necessary changes.”

MISSION: MANAGEMENT

It’s happened: The nightmare you so diligently avoided—or a nightmare you never once considered as a possibility—becomes a reality and you are in the midst of a full-blown crisis. All your due diligence during the preparation stages should come to fruition, but inevitably there will be necessary actions that weren’t part of a prepackaged crisis plan. These steps are a starting point to navigating the chaos and managing the crisis:

â–¶ Identify the affected audiences. Although the media might be the most vocal audience in the wake of a crisis, that shouldn’t distract you from seeing the big picture.

“The media is not always the most important audience,” Smith says. “Employees, customers, investors, vendors or partners often need to hear from you first and directly.”

â–¶ Sharpen internal communications. Of the audiences Smith identifies, employees are the most critical, as they are the front-line brand ambassadors before, during and after the crisis. Thus, effective internal communications is essential during the management stage. Among the first questions you ask, Smith says, should be, “Are our contact lists accurate and up-do-date?” Phone numbers, e-mail addresses, titles and responsibilities change often. The more people who don’t get your message, the less effective your communications effort will be, Smith says.

â–¶ Test messages. Once you release your initial statement, be it an apology, a correction, an explanation or a clarification, it’s important to gauge how well your key audiences are receiving it. If it isn’t having the desired effect, then the messaging needs to be tweaked. But you can’t reach that conclusion without listening first.

“Pay attention to the media response. Monitor and listen to online discussions,” Tennyson says. “Respect input from operating units, and consider the audience points of view.”

MISSION: RECOVERY

Rebuilding credibility, reviewing your response and preventing similar crises from occurring in the future are all goals of the recovery phase. To achieve them, it is important to:

â–¶ Collaborate with the legal department. “Recovery begins with the first decision,” Smith says. “Legal-communications teamwork is essential to success.”

â–¶ Return to the original crisis plan; evaluate what worked and what didn’t. This step circles back to the prevention phase in that it applies the past experiences to enhance your organization’s crisis plan(s). Michael Robinson, SVP of Levick Strategic Communications, recommends evaluating your crisis response in the context of the following questions:

• Did we reach our audiences?

• Were our messages effective?

• What didn’t work?

• What will we do differently next time?

• What is our marketing strategy?

â–¶ Apply the lessons learned. “Never let a crisis go to waste,” Tennyson says. “Your renewed purpose must be sustained, and lingering problems must be compartmentalized. Performance is the only long-term cure.”

The fastest way to a failed recovery is to make promises in the midst of the crisis, only to break them when the dust settles. “Companies and leaders are judged by their actions under stress,” Tennyson says. “The public is forgiving, but only to a point.”

CONTACTS:

Michael Robinson, mrobinson@levick.com; Larry Smith, larrysmith@crisisconsultants.com; Chris Tennyson, chris.tennyson@fleishman.com




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