Members Only: Nimble, Cross-Functional Crisis Team Can Include External Players 

Editor’s Note: The composition of your core PR crisis team, how often it meets and how it jumps into action when a situation arises form this edition’s dialogue, which was lightly edited.  The participants are Ayme Zemke, EVP, client service & certified crisis communication leader, Beehive Strategic Communication, and Leonard Greenberger, VP, AKCG-Public Relations Counselors.

Takeaways include:

  • Keep the CEO off your core crisis team, at least initially.
  • A nimble, cross-functional team is best, and should sometimes include external members.
  • Familiarize members with each other and crisis procedures via periodic practice.
  • Basic protocols are invaluable.
  • Avoid finger-pointing with fact gathering.

Crisis Insider: Should the CEO be a member of the crisis team at the outset?

Ayme Zemke, EVP, client service & certified crisis communication leader, Beehive Strategic Communication

Ayme Zemke: I would argue, generally, no. However, there should be alignment, early in the process, with the CEO on: What are the crisis triggers? What’s our general approach to crisis? Are we transparent? Do we hold back? Certainly, a CEO should be involved in knowing about a crisis and the recommended response.

Leonard Greenberger: I agree. In most cases, you wouldn’t want a CEO involved, at least from the beginning. 

Crisis Insider: And the exception? 

Greenberger: There could be things that really go to the core of your business and whether or not you’re going to be able to continue operating. 

A true crisis threatens the viability of the organization. That could be one where a CEO would be involved at the very beginning. 

Crisis Insider: What about the composition of the crisis team? Who is on it? How large is it? 

Zemke: A strong core crisis team is very cross functional. So, you want representation from legal and from marketing and from human resources, compliance, regulatory and operations. 

I don’t know that there’s a specific number; it’s more about representation across the organization. 

And if you don’t have [a crisis team], you should assemble one. Now! 

You also want the team to not only be intact and functional, but also familiar with one another. What are each person’s roles and responsibilities? Who’s up first if something happens? Is there a subset of the crisis team that takes the first call and chooses whether or not to assemble the rest of the team?

Crisis Insider: And you ensure members are familiar with each other and procedures via exercises, right?

Zemke: Yes. The team needs opportunities to practice. With large organizations, I recommend the crisis team gets together at least quarterly. 

And whether it’s to do a specific scenario exercise or not, at a minimum, it’s to say, “All right, is there anything we need to debrief from the previous quarter? And looking ahead, what risks might we see for the next quarter?” 

It’s one way to stay on top of some of the issues, because, as we know, if you can manage an issue [in advance] you can keep it from becoming a crisis more often than not.

Crisis Insider: Leonard, react to what Ayme said, and here’s an added wrinkle. Let’s say a crisis occurs at 3 am on a holiday weekend. The call comes to you at home. Do you contact the crisis team?  How? 

Leonard Greenberger, VP, AKCG-Public Relations Counselors

Greenberger: I’ll highlight something Ayme said as a way of answering, and that’s getting together on a regular basis, quarterly, if possible. 

So, you are drilling your plan, your scenarios, your protocols so that you’re well aware of what you need to do in the event that something happens. 

And ideally, as part of that process, you are anticipating something that may break at 3 am on a holiday. 

It all goes back to something we’re touching on and probably will talk about again, and that is planning. It’s absolutely central. It’s too late [to begin planning] at 3 am. 

Crisis Insider: What about the team’s composition?

Greenberger: I agree with Ayme about the crisis team’s composition. You want it as small as possible, so it can be nimble. If you’re looking at high double digits, you’re probably going to have trouble responding as quickly as you need to. 

Another point: often we think internally for crisis teams. So, HR, legal, operations, etc. 

But, in some cases you also need to think about including external stakeholders and advisors. So, in some situations include outside legal counsel and maybe insurance executives. 

[Lawyers and insurance executives] often can help answer questions from different angles and provide insight about what to do and avoid so you won’t be excluded from collecting [insurance and legal] claims.  

We encourage a scenario-based approach to crisis. So, as Ayme mentioned, companies should think through scenarios based on the business they’re in. 

When you do that, you may put together different crisis teams, depending on the scenario. 

If it’s a financial impropriety, your CFO would probably be part of the group.

You have to think about all this ahead of time so that you’re ready when something strikes.

Crisis Insider: What are some of the nuts and bolts for the 3 am scenario?

Greenberger: Again, it depends on how you’ve set up your protocols.

You might have a Slack team. Or a text group that’s set up to spread the word when something comes in. 

And make sure that people who need to be checking in on holidays, weekends, potentially vacations, know who they are ahead of time.

Zemke: I agree. You need redundancy [for those on vacation or who are unreachable] and you’ve got to have everyone’s contact information and the agreed-upon channel, whether it’s a cloud platform, texting or Slack. 

In addition, it’s useful to have a subset of the core crisis team, one or two point-persons, who, at 3 am, do an assessment using an escalation strategy. 

So, you say, “Alright, so if it’s this, it’s time to bring in the full team. If it’s that, we’re going to watch and monitor and then we’re going to make a decision.” 

That escalation strategy is part of what you build into your plan. There’s a clear framework for when you bring in the next level of leadership or the next tier of the crisis team. 

Crisis Insider: So, we have the team assembled. Who leads it and how? 

Greenberger: It’s a very good question and again goes to the issue of being prepared. If you’ve got a scenario-based approach, you’ve already thought about who should take the lead. Sometimes it’s the senior person; other times the communicator will take the lead. 

What you’re addressing is: How challenging is this crisis? Who are our primary stakeholders? Who do we need to communicate with and in what order? 

Ideally, you’ve got a lot of that figured out before you even assemble the team. And so you’re able to start making assignments and issuing holding statements quickly, instead of battling over who’s in charge and what to do. 

Crisis Insider: Ayme, how do you avoid finger-pointing during the early crisis team meetings? How do you deal with the room’s personalities and turf wars? 

Zemke: It’s an interesting question. Obviously, time is of the essence. And so, there really isn’t time for finger-pointing. 

A crisis can be really emotional. Certainly, having empathy is important. When you’re communicating, even within that core crisis group, everyone’s human and everyone’s going to be feeling something about the situation. 

One of the ways to neutralize things quickly is to start the conversation by getting grounded in the facts, not in assumptions or accusations. 

The group leader ideally will say, “We just need to baseline it. Let’s confirm what we know. What are we doing about it? What can we say, and to whom, right now?” 

And make sure that you’re communicating inside the organization, with employees first, so they understand what’s going on, and then quickly go external. And be transparent.

Blame is tricky and is not productive. There’s lots of time to debrief after you’ve had your initial crisis response. So, start with the facts. What do we know? What are we doing about it? 

Greenberger: A good tool to use in situations where things may devolve into recriminations and blame is to make sure everyone knows there will be a debrief, after the initial crisis, when you say, “Okay, here’s what happened.” 

But initially, you say, “Right now we are in the middle of this. We need to focus,” as Ayme said, “on the facts…there’ll be time [for blame assessment] later.”

Crisis Insider: Let’s touch briefly on crisis protocols. Should they be on paper, digital? Address levels of situations, like a tier 1 crisis, tier 2 crisis? 

Greenberger: The first and easiest answer is have them. Again, preparation is absolutely crucial to successfully navigating a crisis. 

So, have a standby statement that will allow you to at least begin working with the words you’re going to use and communicating with different stakeholders.  

Have the names of people who are going to be a part of the crisis team and their responsibilities for different stakeholders, depending on what the crisis is. 

And in terms of where protocols live, it’s important obviously they are accessible. 

So, in the old days, they were in a binder on the shelf. But now, of course, you would want to have them on your server, where everybody can access them quickly. That makes it a little easier to update them once in a while.

Zemke: I agree, the key is to have them and keep them updated. 

Make sure they are grounded in your organization’s purpose, mission and values. And aligned with the culture and business strategy. 

Those things change over time. So, as Leonard said, make sure that all of those things stay aligned.

Also, as Leonard said, make them accessible. So, some companies have a version on [Microsoft] Teams and a version they can get to from their phones. 

In addition, some companies have a one-pager, a quick reference guide for what you do in hour one and then you can pull the binder off the shelf. 

But being clear what to do in the immediacy of a crisis, in a really short form, is helpful. And, of course, having all those templates and holding statements in place and ready is also really important.