If you work in a company or organization, you probably have experienced some kind of crisis. Such disruptions come from all sorts of places, often the result of human action or inaction. Either way, your role as the communications professional is to find out what’s happening, advise senior leaders of possible plans of action, implement your plan and evaluate your efforts. It’s also a great self-teaching moment in your career.
There are two important things to remember when dealing with crises. First, don’t wait. Get after the crisis quickly. In the 24/7 world of news and social media, the bad news about your organization or a response to bad news should be reported first by you and no one else. If a crisis happens on a weekend, weeknight, early morning or during the work day, you must go to work on the crisis and your response right away. You don’t want someone outside your organization to fill the information void with their version of the facts.
Second, remember that your organization members and constituents are the most important audiences for your messages. News organizations are important secondary audiences, but it’s your stakeholders that want to hear from you most. Speak to them first.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN
Some things are always going to happen in a crisis. Bad or potentially bad news shared with more than one person at the same time will most likely be reported by someone to outsiders and news organizations. If you’re working with people who must disclose bad news, prepare them for this possibility. Advise them as to how to respond when it does happen.
Confidential documents shared with others by e-mail are almost always forwarded to outsiders and sometimes posted on the Web. Be careful about what you share via e-mail or other electronic means. Before you hit “send,” consider the effects if any such document appeared in print or on the Web.
We also know that crisis stories, regardless of how reporters and bloggers learn about them, will result in a phone call to someone, perhaps you, for comment. Be prepared with a brief media statement.
Finally, expect that parties affected by the crisis will tell their stories to others including the press, regardless of what you ask of them.
What are some important steps to take when responding to a crisis? Some are obvious; some aren’t. Here are some key things to keep in mind:
â–¶ Distribute your response/comment/story through multiple channels: Post on your Web site; post links on your organization’s Facebook and Twitter accounts; send to news distribution services such as Business Wire or PRNewswire; e-mail key reporters and constituents; and to respond to constituents’ phone calls, provide printed copies to office staff for use when answering questions.
â–¶ Transparency matters: Tell as much information as you can, but guard what should be kept private, such as personnel information.
â–¶ Have a crisis management team: Never try to develop and execute a crisis communication plan by yourself. It’s best to have small team already designated, with about four standing members, who will work with you. Have standing rule that any member of your crisis management team may call a meeting should the need arise.
â–¶ Learn to recognize potential controversy: If your organization’s actions are likely to upset some people, know that you will have some work to do to resolve issues. This is particularly true with bad behavior by employees, or pocketbook issues such as staff reductions, lost wages or pension and benefit cuts.
â–¶ Use a single spokesperson: You want your response to be as uniform as possible. Determine who will speak for your organization and provide that person with talking points. Tip: Don’t ask an attorney to be your spokesperson. You want a key leader in your organization to speak, often with the advice of an attorney.
â–¶ Monitor broadcast media, newspapers, e-mail, Web and social media channels for reports: Rely on Google or other search sites and have them set up to get results for several times a day. Check e-mail often, and use searches to check the Web. Tip: If you’re a public information officer, and you don’t want to post information on Facebook or Twitter, maintain accounts for each and use the search function to find out what people are saying in cyberspace on a particular subject.
â–¶ Be prepared to correct inaccurate information: Sometimes information reported by news organizations is just plain wrong. Ask that incorrect information be corrected if there’s a critical error that changes the facts.
WRITE A PLAN
It helps to have a working plan on paper. In my experience, if you can show your supervisors a written response plan for responding to a crisis, it helps them have confidence in your ability to succeed. Here’s a short-form plan template for different elements of a plan to respond to a workplace incident, for example:
• Goals: Name your ideals—“Provide and maintain a safe workplace for all.”
• Objectives: Determine what you want to accomplish and when—“Provide information and the company’s response to the incident to news organizations by 4 p.m. today.”
• Strategies: Name the methods you will employ—“Company e-mail system; phone calls to selected news organizations; company Web site; post information on company Facebook and Twitter accounts.”
• Tactics: Spell out the specific activities you plan—“Phone local radio stations by noon today and speak with news directors and managers.”
Finally, evaluate. Meet with your team after the event and review everything. Summarize your post-evaluation and note specific items that need improvements, and file them for the next event. PRN
[Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from PR News’ Crisis Management Guidebook, Vol. 4 . This and other guidebooks can be ordered at https://www.prnewsonline.com/store/.]
This article was written by John R. Brooks, associate director of Communication Services of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Chicago, and director of the ELCA News Service. He can be reached at [email protected].
Seven Critical Questions to Ask Yourself in a Crisis
Have all your crisis ducks in a row? Here’s a checklist of questions from John R. Brooks of the Communication Services of the Evangelical Lutheran Church that may save you some trouble:
1. Are you reachable at all times, including weekends and evenings? Be sure your office phone message includes your cell phone number.
2. Do you know the reporters in your area who write about your organization? It helps to know them, especially when there’s a crisis.
3. Have you determined your spokesperson? Know who this person is in advance. You don’t want to be assigning roles in the midst of a crisis.
4. Have you set up Google alerts with your organization’s name and/or names of key leaders? This is a great way to get timely updates on the news you need to know.
5. Have you created a Google Profile for yourself? Your profile, with contact information, will show up at the bottom of page one on any search for your name. Go to “Google Profile” for more information about how to create a profile.
6. Have you established Facebook and Twitter accounts? You’ll need the search functions to monitor your crisis in the social media world.
7. Do you have computer access away from the office? Be sure you have access to a computer when at home, on weekends and on vacation. Be sure you can access your Web site from a remote location. You’ll never know when you’ll need it.