I once faced an embarrassing moment during a presentation to more than 300 risk management professionals. It happened when I candidly answered a question about what I would have done to better handle communications immediately after the 2010 BP Gulf oil spill. Off the top of my head, I recommended that selecting different spokespeople, using more online visuals, inviting journalists aboard oil-spill cleanup boats and crafting more empathetic public statements might have made a difference.
I also suggested the company may have detoured from its crisis communications plan under pressure from attorneys anticipating massive litigation.
As soon as I finished, a young man dressed in a dark suit and wearing black-rimmed eyeglasses raised his hand and shot up from his chair in the last row of seats. “I’m from BP,” he declared. “And I helped manage communications for the Gulf spill. We worked from a crisis plan, but the news media was hostile to us from the beginning and things happened during the crisis that no one could have predicted. No matter what we did, we were criticized.”
He was right, of course. BP did a lot of things correctly in that crisis for which the company never received credit. Still, what happened to BP happens far too often to global corporations, nonprofit institutions and government agencies in the throes of a crisis. They put so much faith in their written plan that they have difficulty adapting quickly to the inevitable unforeseen events and developments that occur.
How then, can you ensure that your plan will hold up under the pressure of an actual crisis? Here are some of the things I’ve learned in more than 20 years of counseling clients in crisis matters.
▶ Your plan is a blueprint, not a bible. Crisis craves structure, of course, but successful emergency management often depends on the agility and creativity of your team. Your plan should cover the all basics, including internal communications protocols, phone trees, contact information and statement templates. But your system must remain flexible enough to allow for improvisation.
▶ Focus on planning more than the plan. As a rule, 80% of your time preparing for crisis should be spent testing and rehearsing your written plan. The time and effort your team in considering all the possibilities during “tabletop” exercises and mock crises will pay huge dividends in a crisis because you will have learned how to work together under pressure and more easily summon creative solutions to developments that arise. Harvard University, known for managing its crises extremely well, schedules and executes tabletop crisis exercises several times each year for all of its schools.
▶ Limit your strategic crisis team to five or six members. Several years ago, I worked with a law firm whose crisis team numbered 15 senior partners. We wasted countless hours on two different crises considering multiple points of view and often arguing even after decisions had been made. The result was poor handling of both matters that left the firm’s staff, clients and prospects wondering about the firm’s capabilities.
▶ Start with authority. It’s a truism of crisis communications that the first two hours are the most important. Why? Because when your leadership team demonstrates calmness, self-assuredness and credibility right from the start, it establishes the overriding tone for the entire process.
A crisis team that’s confused, bickering or is perceived to be unable to make solid decisions during the first hours of a threatening event will lose the support and confidence of the organization. The scandal over the Obama administration’s troubled federal Healthcare.gov website revealed just how much worse things can get when no one takes command in a crisis.
▶ Think like your consumer. In a crisis, concerns about issues such as a company’s stock price, loss of business, an institution’s legacy, individual job security and personal health often override everything else. But the organizations that do the best job in a crisis are those that immediately adopt the mindset of “What is my customer thinking?” If you start with the idea of satisfying the fears and demands of those who ultimately buy or use your product or service, you are far more likely to craft solutions that put you back on track.
For an example of how looking out for selfish interests will sabotage your crisis work, consider the exasperated pronouncement of former BP CEO Tony Hayward after the Gulf oil spill: “I want my life back!” Need I say more? PRN
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 17, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.