It has become increasingly difficult for brands, companies and organizations to prepare for the unknown, especially today when information circles the globe instantaneously. A small incident can turn into a full-blown crisis within minutes.
Abraham Lincoln said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow.”
However, I’ll take it a step further. If a brand, company or organization has a crisis, that crisis, no matter how big or small, becomes a limb on that tree and is forever part of its shadow.
So, how do we, as communicators, ensure our shadow reflects our company, our organization’s culture and our brand values, rather than the news, accurate or not, surrounding a crisis?
Definition of Terms
First, let’s be clear about what a crisis is. Simply, a crisis is an urgent issue that needs addressing quickly, when the brand is under threat.
No matter how small the incident, the stakes always are high. In fact, a crisis can result in everything a brand or company stands for changing almost instantly in the hearts and minds of stakeholders.
Structure, Culture, Channels
As an executive-level communicator for more than 20 years, there are three key factors that dramatically improve the efficiency of a brand, company or organization’s communication and, if managed appropriately, can minimize the effects of a crisis.
- First, where communication is housed structurally within the organization
- Second, the organization’s communication culture
- Third, channels the organization employs to facilitate rapid communication internally
As EVP of communications at Bell, a global aerospace technology company, I have direct access to the CEO and membership in the company’s executive leadership team.
When the company has an urgent incident, it’s managed at the table where the executive leadership team meets.
Further, it is our practice that whichever executive team member is in the building at the time of the incident, that person is initially in charge of the response.
This type of structure—where communication leaders are close to the CEO, possess authority to make decisions and have a voice that the rest of management hears—is necessary for rapidly and successfully mitigating the effects of a crisis.
In addition, it’s important that an organization have a culture of communication.
It’s a culture where every employee, from the CEO to the front line staffer, recognizes and embraces the principle of routinely sharing timely, accurate and truthful information, in context, with all stakeholders.
Among other things, this culture of communication serves as a foundation for responding during crises.
As we know, the hardest work in crisis management takes place long before a crisis shows up. You have to be ready all the time, and it starts and ends with this fundamental culture.
the Employee as Communicator
Every employee must recognize the importance of communication. And as spokespeople and ambassadors, they must be on brand and on message all the time.
However, it’s the job of leadership to make sure employees not only understand this, but also have clear instruction on what they can or can’t say.
At Bell, we work hard to instill the value of communication in our team members. Crises are a part of our table talk all the time; in staff meetings, in professional development training, and informal office chatter, just to name a few.
The truth is, you don’t need a lot of tools to stay prepared for crisis. There are many excellent tools and apps that can help keep staff prepared for crisis [for example, see Crisis Insider, Toolbox, April 2021].
On the other hand, some communicators lack budget for tools. In truth, though, all you really need for a crisis exercise is a whiteboard.
Finally, preparing for the unknown requires the appropriate channels to reach every stakeholder and make sure all team members are on the same page.
At Bell, we have an app called Mission Playbook, which contains, among other items, a tool we call OneVoice.
We developed OneVoice to share appropriate talking points on any given issue. It’s active all the time, with communication guidance on a wide range of programs and issues.
But when we have an urgent issue, we’re able to get the necessary information to employees across the company and around the globe quickly and efficiently.
In effect, we all know what leadership expects us to say at any given time. This allows us to hit urgent issues and crises head on.
Constant preparation and the understanding that an urgent issue may surface at any time are crucial aspects of mitigating the effects of a crisis. These elements enable teams to prepare structurally and culturally and have the channels of communication open and ready for use at a moment’s notice.
A company might go years without the opportunity to execute a crisis communication plan, but there is too much at stake to sit back and let our ‘crisis muscles’ atrophy.
Robert Hastings is EVP, government affairs & communications, Bell, and a former assistant secretary of defense.