Crisis is going to strike your clients. This is reality. So not preparing in advance for a crisis means exposing your client to potential disaster. In an age when bad news and missteps become public and go viral at the speed of social media, it is absolutely essential to have a concrete crisis prevention and response plan in place.
Those who specialize in crisis management know this, and spend a lot of time explaining to their dubious clients what bad things can happen and making sure that clear, definite and pre-approved plans and messages are well in place.
“Human denial is my biggest obstacle,” says Gerard Braud, a crisis communications expert in New Orleans. They tell him: “We’ll just figure it out," but he said that without planning, they won’t be able to do it fast enough.
“A lot of these are self-inflicted,” warns Richard Anderson, who runs a communications practice in Little Rock, Arkansas. “You can’t prevent crises from happening, but you can limit the damage to your brand, your stock and your company’s value. As Warren Buffett says, ‘You can build a company in 20 years and take five minutes to destroy it.’”
That can be, as Boeing recently learned, a plane crash, or at Nissan, a CEO accused of financial misdeeds. No company is invulnerable.
Braud offers his clients a four-step process to unearth and defuse potential flashpoints, whether it's an embezzling executive or a chemical spill:
1) Do a vulnerability assessment. Assess each client’s potential weak spots. Be honest. Be thorough. Be sure to look at every possible way a crisis could reach your client—you can also use the crisis experiences of other brands to flesh this out.
2) Create a crisis response plan. Know exactly who will respond when a crisis hits, as well as who will be charged with keeping business operations running as normal. Use pivot tables to plan for every conceivable issue and response. Anderson pointed out that you shouldn't put even the most insistent egotistical C-suite executive in front of the media mid-crisis. “They live in a bubble surrounded by ‘yes people,'" he said.
3) Prepare press release templates. Braud creates a full library of industry-specific press releases ready to send out as soon as needed. “When a crisis hits, it’s going to take at least 45 minutes to get a release written; then it needs to be approved and move to a second draft—while Twitter has already told the narrative. The language can be pre-approved by legal and by senior executives so it’s both factual and approved,” he adds. Otherwise, when everyone’s upset and rushing, “they’ll want to fight over commas and semantics.” That release should be sent to everyone who needs to know what’s happening: employees, investors, customers and other stakeholders.
4) Stay in constant contact. The fourth step in Braud’s plan is to check in quarterly with each of your clients and reassess risk. That might mean looking at new tech, new industry trends, personnel changes, shutdowns, layoffs, expansions, government negotiations (hello, Amazon!), all to make sure you know ahead of time what might erupt into a crisis. It also means assembling a core team at every client of four to five people who meet monthly to “scan the horizon,” Braud adds. “People expect the PR team to do magic but don’t give them the tools to do the job.”