I live in the Silicon Valley, a place often associated with the word “disruption.”
While it’s certainly evocative of the tech industry’s habit of shaking up stable markets and producing perpetually fluid futures, it’s also descriptive of what locals expect from the very ground we walk on. This is earthquake country.
Everyone raised here is trained to immediately move away from windows, dive under desks or brace in doorways when the rolling starts. We all go about our business day to day like people who don’t live on fault lines — but we’re instinctively aware that The Big One can hit at any moment, so everyone has an ingrained personal action plan (and an emergency kit) in place for when it does.
Such fundamental preparedness is similarly sensible in company PR and communications frameworks. Even if you don’t dwell at the edge of a tectonic plate, you must know that some manner of disruptive disaster is always within the realm of possibility. You ought to have a crisis communications strategy in place for when it strikes.
To clarify, a true company crisis is something that impedes an organization’s ability to conduct business. A crisis may be operational — your product malfunctions or your HQ is destroyed in a natural disaster. But a crisis can also be reputational — a high-profile investor is named in a scandalous lawsuit or your company is targeted in an angry presidential tweet.
Appropriately measured and responsive crisis communications are often key in mitigating damage regardless of the type of catastrophe faced, and having a plan in place saves time and sanity in pursuit of that goal. Think of it as your communications emergency preparedness kit.
To stock that kit, you must first establish situational awareness within the organization. Identify critical team members, assess vital elements of information and develop communications templates and plausible action plans that will sustain company mission in the event of either man-made or natural disasters.
Small organizations might not need a giant crisis playbook (a simple outline of actions, list of contacts, and some contingency content for the website may suffice). Larger organizations should invest in more exhaustive planning.
The point is to figure out and document how the company is going to face crises and solve problems quickly as a team. Who needs to make decisions? What is the process for quick action? What will determine resolution?
These steps can help you get prepared.
Effective crisis communications hinge on critical team members.
Response team documentation should clearly identify decision makers and supply contact information, note approval hierarchies (and back-ups), and assign spokespeople (and back-ups). A typical enterprise critical response team may be comprised of the entire c-suite (CEO, COO, CFO, CIO, CMO), as well as legal counsel, the HR lead, head of corporate communications, and product and/or regional leaders as appropriate.
Addressing back-ups is key. Remember you are planning for crisis — it’s wise to assume some team members will be unreachable.
Communications audits are great preparation for crafting crisis plans.
Trust in departmental instincts to identify the best knowledge base in key groups (“In an emergency, I would call so and so” — that’s the person you need providing input). Be sure to poll outside partners about their concerns in the event of a crisis and exchange emergency contact information.
Response time in a crisis can be crucial, so developing pre-drafted and pre-approved communication materials will give you a head start when you need it.
Your courses of action for dealing with crisis events will address an issue spectrum (a list of six to 20 areas where the company is potentially vulnerable). When developing an issue spectrum, always begin with the most likely and most potentially damaging.
For example, if you are a cybersecurity firm operating in Miami, your top two crises on the spectrum might be getting hacked and getting hit by a hurricane (hopefully not on the same day, but you never know). Even something as simple as a status update webpage stating, “We’re aware of a problem and will keep everyone posted as we gather more information,” should be ready to launch.
More comprehensive action plans will include detailed messaging, an FAQ, holding statements, a press release or media alert draft, landing page, customer/partner communications templates, as well as sample social media posts for each issue on the spectrum.
A word to the wise, companies tend to focus heavily on obvious dangers and overlook important, but less conspicuous, potential crises. To wit, commercial airlines have well-developed crisis playbooks for responding to, say, a plane crash. But some carriers seemed awfully ill-prepared in the face of recent customer service calamities.
A great way to ensure you aren’t neglecting to prepare for a solid issue spectrum is to analyze what has happened in the past to other companies, particularly competitors, and model how you’d respond in similar instances. While most organizations won’t need to engage in exercises as drastic as The New York Times’ recent crisis simulation, it is helpful for response teams to periodically engage in a little roleplaying: monitor media coverage of how other organizations deal with a particular crisis, note things that help or hurt, practice running through some scenarios.
No two companies are completely alike, but we can all learn from others’ experiences.
Successful crisis communications are measured by how quickly a company regains the ability to conduct “normal” business, hopefully emerging stronger and wiser. To reduce the inevitable pain in that process, heed the words of Benjamin Franklin, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
Deirdre Blake is senior content manager for Silicon Valley public relations firm Sterling Communications, where she provides editorial coaching services to thought leaders in IoT, enterprise integration, analytics, and other innovative technologies. She was also longtime Managing Editor at Dr. Dobb’s Journal, covering software development, programming languages, and technology news.
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