How PR Pros Can Anticipate Crises at Their Own Organization

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There’s good news and bad news when it comes to managing crises in the digital era. On the upside, brands are able to reach their stakeholders directly via social and there's never been a time when it was easier to monitor and listen to the conversation between brands and customers. Yet digital technology can spread word of crises, accurate or not, around the globe within seconds. The five minutes that Warren Buffett once said it takes to ruin a reputation is no longer the case. It’s now been reduced to the time it takes someone to create a Facebook post, Verizon’s VP, corporate communications Torod Neptune said at PR News Crisis Management Workshop Oct. 19 in New York.

All Is Not Lost: Still, Neptune is upbeat. As a communicator “you already know where 90% of the crises” that will touch your business are, he said. “If I ask you to name the three areas where you think there will be a crisis at your company I’m sure you’d be able to name them,” he added. That’s because communicators “work in the shadows,” between a brand's various departments and so are well placed to know where potential crises loom, Micheline Tang, director of communications at the law firm King & Spalding, said at the workshop. “We’re the great synthesizers” since we work with all parts of the company…this makes us invaluable,” said Neptune.

Torod Neptune, Verizon
Torod Neptune, VP, Corporate Communications, Verizon

As such, “[Communicators] should lead in a crisis…we deal with all the teams and manage relationships” between them, he said. In addition to knowing where potential crises reside, “We know the protocols [for crisis management], the chain of command…others [outside of communications] at your company might not know these things,” he said.

Listening and the Ivory Tower: Another important function for communicators, the two agree, should be monitoring the social conversation, via Google Analytics and other tools, so they should be most attuned to the climate and “anticipate crises,” Neptune said. Adds Tang, communicators who are monitoring and listening should be a brand’s defense against “a corporate ivory tower.” Don’t allow your brand to become “isolated.”

A Tip: “I know what the C-suite thinks” are the brand’s pain points and potential crisis starters, Tang said, but it’s important to spend time with middle and lower rank staff. Find out what’s on their “oh, crap” lists, she urged. That will add to your knowledge base about where crises might be lurking. In addition, when a crisis occurs that’s related to one of the less-known areas of your company, you will be able to explain it easily to the C-suite. At the least, you’ll know people in the affected areas whose knowledge you can tap, Tang said.

Micheline Tang King & Spalding
Micheline Tang, Director of Communications, King & Spalding

Prepare and Pack Heavily: Where the two disagree slightly is on preparation for crises. Neptune advocated having a plan in place.

Tang opts for a “packing list” that anticipates the many things you’ll need to react to crises, including: press releases, timelines, media contact numbers, media kits, lists and contacts for industry gurus/influencers, logos, call forwarding instructions for receptionists, proxy statements, B-roll, emails of politicians, union leaders, etc.

Tang suggests formulating such lists and updating them through periodic visits your brand’s domestic and international offices. Once on site assemble members of various teams (operations, secretarial, financial, legal, sales, marketing etc) and run a crisis simulation. Hers consists of 11 envelopes that contain various scenarios. The group reacts to the scenarios, formulating plans. At the end of the three-hour session Tang leads a lessons-learned segment. She underscored one of Neptune’s earlier points: “What seems obvious to us as communicators [during a crisis] may not be for people in other parts of the company.”

Follow Seth Arenstein: @skarenstein