Crisis Comms 101: Canaries are Dead, Spider Monkeys are Nigh

Licensed from the U.S. National Archives Flickr account under Creative Commons License. Original image: https://flic.kr/p/4W9Hk Creative Commons License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

What are we trying to avoid? Train wrecks. Figurative train wrecks. Well, it’s good to avoid literal train wrecks, too, but this is about the figurative ones.

As I’ve said many times before, “crisis happens” (bumper stickers are at the printers.) We can’t stop or even control it when it starts, but we can take steps to contain and mitigate the kind of long term impact that make crisis so dangerous.

In previous “101” posts I wrote about recognizing, preparing for and forecasting impending crises. In this post I write about what to do when the impending crisis is upon you and your organization. Bear in mind, if you haven’t invested the time in preparation, these steps are far less effective.

1. Recognize and accept you’re in a crisis
Seem obvious? That’s because it is. But obvious doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. The line that separates an incident or emergency from a crisis isn’t always clear. If you’re a manager, you’re often focused more on operations and may not notice the canaries dropping in the coal mine. Or, even worse, you see them but succumb to the natural instinct to duck and cover rather than turn and face it. Either way, the earlier everyone understands it’s spider monkey time (still unsure what I mean by that, exactly) the better chance you have of containing and mitigating the damage.

2. Exercise Maximum Disclosure Minimum Delay
Brando and I are fond of maxims. They simplify our core beliefs and convert them into mantra-like expressions that guide us when the shiz-nit is hitting the proverbial fan. Maximum disclosure, minimum delay is one of our favorites and what instructors preach at the DoD’s Defense Information School. It essentially means to release as much accurate and verified information as quickly as you can. Again, the natural instinct is to circle the wagons and adopt a “silence is golden” philosophy, but we know bad news doesn’t get better with age and if you aren’t telling your story, someone else will – and I guarantee you won’t like their version.

If there isn’t a lot of information available, as is often the case during the initial stages of an incident or unexpected event, you’ll still want to say something to let the public and other stakeholders know you’re taking action. In these situations, I always recommend you at least communicate the following:

  • Empathy. You don’t need facts or details to acknowledge stakeholder concerns and that you share them.
  • What happened, insofar as what you have been able to verify.
  • What actions you’re taking to address the issue.
  • What actions stakeholders can expect in the coming hours, days or weeks.

3. Be consistent in the days that follow, and ensure you do the following:

  • Communicate honestly. This is a challenge when mistakes have been made, but being honest when things go wrong is what earns the most credibility.
  • Put out simple and clear messages. What you say and the message you put out must make it through the noise and be digestible by the public and your stakeholders.
  • Ensure everyone is doing the “right thing.” The public, social and traditional media are now focused on your organization. They will notice when you stray. Actions must align with words. One slip and all is lost (too dramatic? Cliche, maybe?.)
  • Resist the combative instinct (Fight or Flight). The daily scrutiny and tone of external forces can wear you down and human instinct is to either lash out or crawl into a hole. It’s not personal, so stay professional by continuing to focus on your concerns (and how they match their concerns,) and stay willing to improve future performance. The tone you set in your communications is, in many cases, the message.
  • Use direct communication with important stakeholders, such as local officials, key suppliers and, especially, internal workforce leadership. Forget basic public relations — basic human relations dictates you engage personally with those most important to your organization. They have different information needs than the media, customers or the general public.

*This is the second to last post in a 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

Image courtesy user “born1945” Flickr stream, used under Creative Commons license. Original image: https://flic.kr/p/4W9Hk, License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ The image has not been altered.

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