By Beverly M. Payton, M.A., APR
Public relations professionals who specialize in crisis communications are among the highest paid in the industry. That’s because they are usually called in to consult for an organization only after a crisis has been boiling over for some time. Besieged leaders hope the consultant can invoke some PR magic that not only turns down the heat, but also moves the boiling pot off the burner and cleans up the gooey, sticky mess. Most of the time, they can’t. The kitchen is already on fire.
What will you do when the S%#$ hits the fan?
A famous quote usually attributed to Benjamin Franklin reads: “He who fails to plan, plans to fail.” As with most things in public relations—indeed, in life generally—planning trumps reacting. But, incredibly, many organizations don’t plan for how they will communicate in a crisis. So, when a crisis occurs, organizational leaders are blindsided, with no blueprint for what to do or say. The resulting chaos usually exacerbates the crisis because the media and other important publics get the impression that the confused organization is inept at best, or unethical at worst.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking: “This can’t happen here.” Public Relations media is peppered with case studies of spectacular crisis communications failures in government organizations (e.g. Flint, Michigan’s water crisis), businesses (e.g. Volkswagen’s diesel dupe), nonprofits (e.g. the Red Cross disaster response debacle) and even religious organizations (e.g. the Roman Catholic Church’s pedophile priests cover-up).
Implementing a well-thought-out crisis communications plan can prevent misinformation from gaining a foothold, give your organization’s leaders credibility and preserve trust among your most important stakeholders.
Eight Steps to an Effective Crisis Communications Plan:
- Assemble a crisis communications team and develop between three to ten possible scenarios of things that can go wrong and cause your organization unflattering visibility. Prioritize by significance and likelihood.
- Develop a telephone call tree specifying the order in which key decision makers will be notified about a crisis.
- Create a plan for each scenario that specifies: what, during those first critical hours, you will do (ordered by priority), who will do it, what you will say, who will serve as the interface between your organization and each public (e.g. victims, board of directors, employees, donors, reporters, government officials etc.) and who will speak on behalf of the organization to the public in press conferences, interviews and on the internet.
- Develop processes for how you will communicate candidly, compassionately and completely with key internal and external stakeholders. Create a draft news release and social media posts.
- For each scenario, develop a list of hypothetical Q&As of what reporters and key publics are likely to ask you. Develop some “placeholder” statements you can use during the discovery process while you are searching for more complete, factual information to share. This is no time for the synthetic emotings of corporate speak; your initial statement must project sincerity, humanity and empathy. By the way,“No comment.” is never an acceptable placeholder statement.
- Write your mea culpa statement, sans finger-pointing blame games. After the facts are known and communicated, you must explain what went wrong and what you will do to alleviate the situation and prevent similar future occurrences. For example: How will crisis victims be cared for? What and how will you change?
- Run a fire drill of your highest risk scenario. Assess how effectively your team responded and make changes to your plan, as needed.
- Give each person on the crisis response team (including your CEO, executive director or other fearless leader) two copies of the finalized crisis communications plan—one for the office and one to keep at home (in case the dreaded phone call comes at 3 a.m.)
Review your crisis communications plan at least annually—quarterly is preferred. Are there new risks or vulnerabilities to consider? Do you need to make changes to the crisis team phone tree? Distribute two copies of the updated plan to everyone on your crisis communications team, and tell them to destroy previous versions.
Please share how your own organization planned for a crisis. Do you have any other helpful steps to add? Also, if you had to carry out a crisis communications plan, how did it go? What would you do differently next time?