Regardless of whether it’s a manufacturing fault, security breach, branch closure or any other type of issue, you’ll need to be prepared.
Consider crisis management as a type of insurance policy for the long-term health of your business. The basic steps aren’t difficult, but they do require advanced work to minimise bad press. After all, the slower the response, the more damage is incurred – especially with the prolific use of social media.
Identify who’ll take ownership of a crisis
This is easier said than done, and, in many cases, people will just assume that a single person will know exactly what to do. However, they might forget to account for the fact that the person could be on holiday or otherwise engaged at the type that the crisis occurs. In rare cases, they might even be directly responsible for the crisis, in which case you wouldn’t want them to be a spokesperson.
A small team of business representatives should be identified to act as your company's Crisis Communications Team.
Selecting the right spokespeople
Ultimately, the decision about who should speak to the media is made when a crisis breaks. However, the pool of potential spokespersons should be identified and trained well in advance.
Within each team, there should be individuals who are the only people that are authorised to speak for the company during a crisis, but you might wish to designate different spokespeople for certain types of crises. The CEO or Managing Director should be one of those spokespersons, but not necessarily the primary one.
For example, your Chief Finance Officer would be best to handle enquiries of a financial nature and your lawyer for any legal issues.
It’s all about knowing who’s best placed to answer questions in a succinct and factual manner. Most importantly, the spokespeople need to be very effective at ‘interpersonal communications’, which is something that doesn’t sit naturally with everyone and may even take them entirely out of their comfort zone.
Remember though – we’re not just talking about spokespersons capable of projecting the company’s views to the media, but those who are conversant with all forms of communication. They must be equally comfortable briefing staff as they are external audiences.
Often a spokesperson is identified because they’ve ‘done a lot of public speaking and will not have any trouble talking to the press’. However, being in the public eye voluntarily and being forced to speak under extenuating circumstances can be worlds apart. Crisis communications training is invaluable for all identified spokespeople.
All audiences - internal and external - are just as capable of misinterpreting information about your organisation as the media, and it's your responsibility to reduce the risk of that happening. Having a trained individual on hand who’s able to ‘talk their language’ is crucial.
Spokesperson training teaches you to be prepared, to be ready to respond in a way that optimises the response of all stakeholders.
Establish communications procedures
News of an initial crisis could be received by anybody in the company and at any time. For organisations that operate round the clock, it could be a call in the early hours of the morning that requires attention.
You need to plan in advance as to who should be notified and by which means you will inform them.
A crisis communications plan should be identified and made available to all company employees, telling them precisely what to do and who to call if there appears to be a potential for a crisis.
At least one member of the Crisis Communications Team, plus an alternate member, should include their mobile number, office and home phone numbers on the emergency contact list.
Identify and know our influencers
Who are the key influencers that matter to your business?
Most businesses will consider their employees, customers, the media, prospects, suppliers and, in some cases, investigative organisations such as the HSE to be prime recipients of any communications. Private investors might also be involved and need to be kept informed. The last thing you would want is for them to find out indirectly.
Similarly, publicly held companies have to comply with the Securities and Exchange Commission and stock exchange information requirements.
All of this needs to be taken into account, and specific actions will be required to make sure each of these groups of people receive the relevant information about a particular crisis.
Decide on the method of communication
As part of your preparation, you’ll need to obtain complete means of contact (with phone and email being essential) for each group of influencers. You should then create corresponding lists to accommodate rapid communication if a crisis does occur.
Depending on the size and type of business, you might also need to consider any back-up communications in the event of emergency call-ins (e.g. a dedicated free-phone number) or a specific part of your website that could be activated in times of a crisis to keep people updated and informed.
Consider the scenarios
It’d be impossible to think of every single scenario, but there’ll be certain situations that may be more likely to unfold than others within your business.
If you're being proactive and preparing for crises, gather your Crisis Communications Team for a session to identify all the potential situations that could occur.
There will be at least two upshots to doing this:
- You might realise that there are certain operational risks and that these could be addressed immediately rather than waiting for a disaster to happen.
- You can also start the process of identifying possible replies based on worse/best case scenarios. This might sound tedious, but it’ll pay if you were to ever find yourself in the firing line.
In some cases, of course, you know that a crisis will occur because it forms part of your strategy. You might be making staff redundancies, be undertaking a controversial acquisition or be about to build in an area previously treasured by the community. Either way, you’ll need to plan your communications in advance.
Establish holding statements
Whilst final content must always await the outbreak of a crisis, ‘holding statements’ are important. These are messages designed for use immediately when a crisis occurs and are pulled together in advance to be used as a basis for a variety of scenarios.
However, remember, just as nothing stays static in an organisation, neither will a holding statement. The Crisis Communications Team should regularly review them to determine if they require revision.
Written by Emma Plummer