Crisis Planning: 6 Steps to Getting Buy-In from the Boss

"Didn't see that one coming ... or did I?"

“Boy, didn’t see that one coming … or did I?”

I was contacted by a new colleague recently who was lamenting the lack of interest in crisis planning demonstrated by his C-suite managers. It’s true that of all the operations for which managers are responsible, assigning time, money, resources and “stress equity” to preparing for doomsday scenarios is an easy priority to put in the proverbial parking lot. Sure, you could take the initiative on your own to build a plan but, ultimately, your boss’ priorities are yours, and he or she wants you burning calories on what’s important to him or her. So, if building a crisis plan is important (and you know it is), your best recourse is to make it important to the boss, too.

I was raised in an organization that lives and breathes crisis everyday but, even then, leadership wasn’t always sold on the value of crisis comms planning. We were crisis responders, you see, not planners. The math they weren’t doing was that while we were well-versed in responding to other peoples’ crises, we risked failing miserably at handling our own.

While it was my leadership’s responsibility to ensure priority was given to mitigating the risks to our operations, I considered it my responsibility to ensure they understood the PR risks, and I considered it my fault if they failed to at least look at it.

If you’re in a similar situation, I offer these steps. I’ve used them with leadership and have been successful (most of the time) in getting the boss to buy in, which gave me the freedom of movement I needed to dedicate my time and agency resources to the planning process. Here we go:

1. Do your homework
The boss is busy and your face time is limited. Don’t start talking about the need for a crisis comms plan before you have a concrete understanding of your organization’s issues, threats and vulnerabilities. You know planning for crisis is a good idea but saying so to the boss without context will ultimately earn you a new nickname: Chicken Little.

2. Make a list
As you assess the operations of the company, start making notes on pervasive issues and list all the things that could go wrong. Look for the types of issues that involve strong emotions, vastly polarized opinions and/or high levels of concern among stakeholders. Depending on your business, this might be privacy issues, ethical concerns or cultural divergence across global operations. Regardless of the business you’re in – issues exist.

3. Develop a library of ‘cautionary tales’
Find and examine crisis comms examples in your industry and/or those outside your industry that are recognizable.  Study them and extract examples when bad comms planning made things worse.  Have these examples at the ready; keep the clips, case studies and lessons learned in a file with easy access. Know the basic who, what, where, when, why and how of each event so you can quickly add it to correspondence or conversations you have with management.

4. Spell out the bottom line risk
Think of this as your attention getter, sales pitch, elevator speech, whatever.  The audience for this is management. Put it in language they understand. They get risk assessments and contingencies within the business operation so make that connection. Your key message here is “disregard this at your own peril.” Each email, conversation, briefing, etc., on the subject should include language from this step. You’re a comms ninja, so I shouldn’t need to point this out (but I will) — be clear, concise and brief.

5. Explain how your plan mitigates that risk
We’ve all had bosses who tell us, “bring me solutions, not problems.” Fair enough. If you’ve effectively executed the previous step, then the boss will be extremely interested in what you have to say next; time to close. Again, use your powers of effective communication to be brief and to the point. It goes without saying, make sure you’re doing Step 4 and 5 concurrently (I guess it doesn’t go without saying).

6. Find champions
Every organization has them. They may not be the people who call the shots or have the final say, but they’re people the boss listens to and they have access to management. Pitch the value of your plan to them as you would the boss. You never know when your efforts may come up in conversation when you’re not in the room. Hearing the merits of the plan from a third-party will get the boss’s attention. And because your crisis plan will require the support of more than just your boss and your staff, it helps to socialize what you’re doing early on.

This is what’s worked for me. Follow these guidelines and when things hit the fan, your boss will remember you told him so – whether he bought off or not.  Either way, approaching crisis planning this way could lead you away from the Chicken Little moniker and closer to more flattering prognosticators.

Best of luck, Nostradamus.

Please share what’s worked for you in the comments below or via twitter. Use the hashtag #crisiscomms and CC us @crisis_comms.

Photo: Copy of Garencières’ 1672 English translation of the Prophecies (printed in London by Thomas Ratcliffe and Nathaniel Thompson; 1st English ed.), located in The P.I. Nixon Medical History Library of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons. Commons is a freely licensed media file repository

— This article was originally posted on The Crisis Communicator April 25, 2014. —

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