Crisis happens. I don’t think that’s a bumper sticker yet, but it should be. A manager who can anticipate the things that can go wrong and has a plan for them is way ahead of the curve. You don’t have to know when and where crisis might strike in order to formulate a plan. You just need to accept that it can happen and ensure you’re following the advice below on how to position your organization to weather the storm long before it comes.
Tip #1: Develop your credibility and solidify working relationships
You should establish good will relationships with all the people – externally and internally – you’ll work with during a crisis. Being in the throes of a crisis is not the time to build these lines of credible communication. Prove yourself with your day-to-day interactions and it will pay dividends.
Tip #2: Know the issues that relate to your operations (a.k.a. issue management)
Remember, issues are fuel for the fire so you’ll want to know where those fuel spots are. Take a critical look at your organization’s operations. If you manage hazardous material facilities in small towns, be mindful of stakeholder and community attitudes about the environment, safety and economic impacts of your operations. If you’re a college administrator, you’ll want to identify the unique set of issues relating to student safety, academic integrity and/or faculty ethics.
Tip #3: Think of what might go wrong
This is about identifying the potential emergencies that could spark issues into crises. If you’re the college administrator, you might envision a scenario during which students are caught in a widespread cheating ring that threatens school integrity. If you’re the chemical plant manager, anticipating a spill should be an obvious one, but what about a spill that occurs a week after you lay off local workers?
Tip #4: Have a plan (even a notional one) for feeding the information beast
Know the media representatives in your area and how you’re going to manage their logistical needs (phones, electrical outlets, space for briefings, etc.). Know the formal and informal leaders in the community and know how you’ll keep them apprised. These influencers will help carry your message, and if you’ve done a good job building a relationship, they may also lend credibility and informal support (i.e. third party validation.) More important than ever, have a plan to use social platforms to engage customers and other stakeholders.
Tip #5: At a MINIMUM, ensure any plan includes:
1. What you’re going to do. How you will communicate with media and stakeholders and how you will get them access. How you will integrate social media platforms. Who your key spokespersons will be. Identify who needs to be contacted within the organization. Identify who needs to be brought in from the outside.
2. What you’re going to say. What messages will be. What the public will need to know. What employees will need to know. What government and other stakeholders will need to know.
Tips #6, 7 and 8: Coordinate, communicate and socialize your plan
I’ve seen organizations that have an operational plan or drill for every contingency, yet they rarely include a crisis communication element. If your company has a contingency plan for operational scenarios, make sure there is a public/stakeholder information component attached.
Leadership at all levels of the organization – from supervisors to the CEO – should know about the plan and what role they will play if it’s activated.
I recommend sharing certain elements of your plan with media to build trust and to let them know what to expect if something happens. They will also be happy to provide suggestions and feedback.
If you’ve even thought about any of these things, you’re already in better shape than most managers. Take the time to put a plan in writing – no matter how sparse the details. Have an outline of action at least.
Once you have a plan in your back pocket, you’ll be much better prepared to act when the early indications of a developing crisis appear.
*This is the third in a six-post series covering the fundamentals of managing crisis comms. Check out posts the previous posts:
Why Crisis Suck
Anatomy of a Crisis
Preparing for the Inevitable
Canary in the Coal Mine
Canaries are Dead, Spider Monkeys are Nigh
Assessing the Post-Crisis Prognosis
Katrina was a great lesson for all. An old National Weather Service mantra was “watch the boundaries”. That is where things happen. I have found in the years I have worked in crisis communications and planning that those are the spots that most planners overlook. Many companies have plans for themselves. Often they include things like call 911, contact local law enforcement, fire departments etc. I always ask, “What happens if they are not there?”. The boundary where your plan depends on others is quite vulnerable. During Katrina, many had plans that relied on others, but they weren’t available. So the next question I ask is, What do you do?” That has to be seriously considered. I do some work with Red Cross and we now say that nay plan you have must be self-reliant the first 72 hours.
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“Watch the boundaries”, I like that. My writing partner and I burned some calories for the U.S. Coast Guard during Katrina – a lot of learning points and teachable moments. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.