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  • Writer's pictureBenton

Effective Crisis Response is Planned

Updated: Aug 3, 2020

Avoid making another crisis out of your response. Have a plan before you ever need one.

Every consulting business is pitching their crisis communications strategy right now. It probably starts with the words “during the age of COVID-19” or “during these unusual times.” 

The thing about crisis communications is they are only ever needed during unusual times. These are times when you are concerned about damage to your brand, loss of talent, or even the loss of your business. If crises are normal for your organization, you might have a bigger problem. (This is another lesson: know what is a crisis and what is just a bad week; and know what is a structural problem as opposed to an isolated incident). 

In other words, the strategies and tactics for addressing crisis situations are typically always the same, even though many people and organizations seem to think they need an entirely new strategy every time something comes up. 

It also means that, much like anything in your organization, there should be a plan in place ahead of time, that can be activated when the need arises. If, for some reason, that plan isn’t fully effective for the situation (a major reckoning on race, for example), you have a foundation of values from which to build. 

In the vast majority of cases there are a few clear steps that will guide you through any crisis situation:

  1. Hire someone Every organization should be prepared to communicate aggressively and decisively, but many still fail to see the entire picture. Even if just at the outset, get a fresh set of eyes on your operation and your challenge, and get outside advice. 

  2. Collect all the information (don’t be surprised) The number one rule of crisis communications is don’t be surprised. Collect all relevant information and base plans off it. If new information comes to light, add it to your considerations and adjust your plans. Being blindsided not only puts you in an impossible position, it also gives the impression you’re actually hiding something. 

  3. Assess whether this is a structural issue or an isolated incident Chances are there is a little bit of both in a given situation, but it is critical to understand whether this could be become a recurring issue if you don’t address the root cause. In today’s world, issues such as race and equity will continue to bubble up without holistic action. If the crisis is acute then address while building a longer term plan. If it is clearly a symptom of a bigger problem, see number seven.

  4. Identify other potential issue areas, vocal opponents, and likely defenders Use the outside help to evaluate weaknesses and have a set of validators ready to speak on your behalf. Beating a threat is usually about flooding the zone with positive coverage or at least a strong, broad defense. You need to know what detractors will say and have people ready to rebut and go offense. (Sometimes this is referred to as a SWOT analysis).

  5. Identify a lead spokesperson and establish a protocol for any public comments Typically only one person should speak for your organization from the inside. Sometimes that is the CEO, but more often than not it is the regular public spokesperson. Whoever it is will likely face some professional turbulence so be committed to them. 

  6. Have a crisis team and run all related work through that team. Instruct any staff to do the same Do not run your crisis communications through multiple communications channels. Have a responsible team of people assigned to the above tasks and make sure all related activities run through them. This isn’t just meant to avoid leaks or other embarrassing statements. The appearance of an organized response will keep your organization confident you have this under control. 

  7. BE DELIBERATE One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking they need to respond rapidly and repeatedly. The opposite is true: crisis situations require deliberate, effective, powerful action. Initial, non-declarative statements are fine. But after that you must be extremely clear, accurate, and prepared to act when you comment publicly. Avoid being reactionary, whether to external or internal pressure. When people try to speed you up, move even more slowly. Rushed action is usually not the best action. 

  8. Address impacted staff, if necessary Obviously the most difficult situation, but the surest sign of a willingness to take necessary action. If employment decisions must be made related to this crisis, make them. Do the due diligence, but don’t hesitate or drag the process out. It doesn’t help you or them. 

  9. Be as transparent with your organization as possible. People want to feel they are part of the team and the solution, especially when they are disconnected from it.  My most important advice: be honest. Like a politician facing some negative allegation, the worst thing you can do is hide information. It will come out. So be honest with your followers, and most importantly be honest with your staff. They are your barometer of the ability to regain trust and your most likely defenders. Treat them as what they are: your most valuable asset. 

The biggest key takeaways are to never be surprised, and to recognize there will probably some negative feelings about you or your organization from some amount of time. That doesn’t mean your plan didn’t work; you just haven’t fully recovered yet. Trust, as they say, is the hardest thing to gain and the easiest to lose. You are always working to gain and maintain trust; it is not static. Don’t view a crisis communications situation any differently. They are often more opportunities than threats

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