This is what happens when the crisis starts without you

This is what happens when the crisis starts without you

Let’s say you’re in charge of communications at your organization and you’re about to board a two-hour flight on a business trip. After you’re buckled into your seat and you’ve dutifully turned off your smartphone, what you do not know is that all hell is breaking loose on the ground.

One of your organization’s employees did something totally disgraceful and it was captured on video. About the time your aircraft has reached 10,000 feet after takeoff, that video already had 20,000 hits on social media.

Two hours later when you power up your phone, it lights up with messages.

Your mailbox is full of requests from reporters looking for a company statement on this horrendous act. Your organization’s senior managers are texting, calling and emailing you to get back to them quickly. Oh, and one other thing. The airline told you your luggage is well on its way to Des Moines, and that’s not where you are.

Congratulations. Your crisis has started without you.

A little good news and a little bad news are in order.

First the bad news: Get used to it. Now, the good news: You can take proactive steps against those seemingly unexpected happenings but it takes a commitment on the part of your organization.

The simple solution is to create a crisis management ecosystem throughout your entire organization long before you buy those plane tickets. That’s your best defense against crises that originate on or are inflamed by social media and the Internet.

Back to the digital future

To effectively examine this approach, we need to revisit the old way of doing things.

In the past, even the best run organizations had crisis plans that centered on the notion that the most breaking crisis events would require a news crew to arrive on the scene and then start looking for sources. That takes a certain amount of time. You or someone in leadership could have expected a grace period of at least a few minutes to develop an initial response.

Things are different now. The ubiquitous nature of smartphones and social media have transformed that dynamic. Some events escalate in a few short minutes and can be seen by hundreds of thousands even before the news media have an opportunity to launch coverage.

So, while in the past you could have focused your internal crisis management and media training on having even a small a window of time to prep, and a select group of managers to train, you now have to think more broadly. It is not far-fetched to assume that your first line of defense is a social media intern, an hourly worker, a receptionist or someone from accounting, who just happen to be closest to the unexpected event.

So, how can you “train” the entire organization to be more nimble in identifying and properly managing a crisis situation?

An effective training regimen

While it may be impractical to think of literally training everyone in the organization to be a crisis manager, you can incorporate into your organization’s ecosystem a general ability to identify the earliest stages of brewing crises.

You can create efficient reporting protocols to ensure potential crises, brewing ones and breaking crises are properly addressed.

This kind of effort has to be more than a class or workshop where only a select few managers attend once a year. To be effective, it would have to be implemented campaign-style throughout the organization.

Specific crisis identification and management modules can be incorporated into standing organizational training programs, but also through employee communications such as newsletters, eNewsletters, blogs or videos. Provide talking points and tip sheets to managers throughout the organization.

The key is to start the conversation and keep it going. Get people talking about what could happen, what are the most likely sources of potential crises, and what they should do first if it happens.

Another aspect of this training may even incorporate customer service.  As we’ve seen, poor customer service incidents make for great viral videos, whether it be in a fast food restaurant or on the tarmac.  

The effective handling or the unexpected interactions with customers can go a long way towards preventing the types of crises that start without you.

Managing expectations

While incorporating a crisis management mindset into your organization’s ecosystem may not prevent all instances of spontaneous crises, it can enable the organization to act more instinctively correct once something unexpected does happen.

Going back to that initial example. Imagine if you hopped onto that flight and everything happened as initially described. Only this time, at various levels in the organization people knew who in the organization to contact and tell what they saw, and those people immediately knew what to do with that information.

So that when you disembarked from your two-hour flight, a senior manager left this message on your voicemail:

“We had a little flare up on social media a little while ago, but our customer service people are already in touch with those affected to assess the impact on them and has committed to correcting the problem. The individual employee at the center of the situation has been identified and is being interviewed internally. We’re doing our own investigation throughout the organization to see if anyone else is affected by this sort of event. You may want to tell this to any reporters who may call.”

Wouldn’t that be a great starting point in developing your initial media statement?

Even though this is a hypothetical situation, it is achievable. All it takes is proactive and ongoing training and dialogue to make sure that your organization is nimble in the face of the unexpected.

What steps has your organization taken to prepare for its next crisis?

Tim O’Brien is owner of Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications consultancy.  He has over 30 years’ experience in communications and started his career as a journalist.

Photo via Pixabay

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