Effective crisis management #1: The big picture

In television reporting lingo it's called "the guilty building shot." A camera pans up an office tower as the reporter's voice-over tells viewers: "On the fifth floor of this downtown high-rise, XYZ Corporation CEO, Joe Blow, is locked in his office refusing to tell us what happened and what he's going to do to make it right."

In television reporting lingo it's called "the guilty building shot." A camera pans up an office tower as the reporter's voice-over tells viewers: "On the fifth floor of this downtown high-rise, XYZ Corporation CEO, Joe Blow, is locked in his office refusing to tell us what happened and what he's going to do to make it right."

Typical viewer reaction? "What's he hiding; why won't he tell us what's going on?

And the longer Mr. Blow remains locked in his office refusing to communicate, the worse the situation becomes for his company.

Most likely implications for XYZ Corporation? Battered reputation, loss of stakeholder confidence, plummeting staff morale and a damaged bottom line.

XYZ Corporation is a company in crisis without a plan to deal with it – and it's not an uncommon situation. The media regularly report on organizations that are in trouble for one reason or another, but won't give interviews or provide information about what happened and what they are doing about it. In many cases it's not that they don't want to communicate – they simply don't know how because they are unprepared and have no plan.

Big companies in businesses that are inherently risky, like oil and gas or packaged food, are generally well prepared to deal with crises on an operational level and through communications with stakeholders. They may not always do it well, but at least they do it.

Not having a crisis response plan is like doing without liability insurance, because a crisis plan is an insurance policy in its own right. It helps mitigate the damage to an organization's reputation that is often an inevitable result of a crisis – and it's worth repeating the old cliché that reputations take years to build but can be destroyed in seconds.

The reason why many small and medium-sized organizations don't plan for crises is because (a) they don't always recognize the potential for a crisis and (b) they totally underestimate its impact when it happens, often believing that they can deal with it in the normal course of business. These are big mistakes.

Organizations have little or no control over if and when a crisis will occur. It could be as singular as a sexual harassment complaint by an employee against a senior executive, or a catastrophe such as a fire that destroys a production facility and offices. In between these two examples is a vast range of possibilities, any of which could attract media attention and require extensive and detailed communication with stakeholders including customers, suppliers, regulators, investors, partners and employees.

While a crisis response plan should obviously include operational, legal, regulatory and liability issues, communication is a common thread linking them all. Effective crisis communication is not just about dealing with the media although media coverage – including social media ‑ is typically how the public hears about the crisis and judges the organization's response and is an important channel to a wider audience. But direct communication with key stakeholders is vital, particularly in the early stages of a crisis when it is crucial to retain their confidence.

Developing a crisis response plan need not be a long and costly exercise for an SME. They key is to make sure that everyone in the organization knows their role and that the logistical support is in place.

The following steps are a guide to developing an effective crisis communications plan:

  • Scenarios. What could go wrong and what impact could it have on the business? Look at everything from a fire to a complaint by a customer and weigh up the respective risks to your reputation.
  • Roles and responsibilities: Who does what and when. It may be necessary to communicate very quickly with a wide range of stakeholders so that they hear from you before they see the media coverage. And don't forget the organization's first point of contact ‑ the person who answers the phone or greets visitors at reception. They will also have a role in communicating during a crisis, even if it's just knowing who to pass questions on to.
  • Logistics: Make sure that all the information you need to contact key stakeholders is readily accessible and that you have back-ups stored off site in case you can't get into your offices. Also, identify an off-site meeting place with access to equipment you may need if you can't use your offices.
  • External support: While it's not necessary to have a crisis communications consultant on retainer, you should know who you can contact at short notice if you need additional support, particularly to help with media relations and preparing written communications material.
  • Interview coaching: Media interviews during crises can be difficult, but are often an important element of your communications plan. Get a coach for your media spokespeople (you should identify and train at least two) so that they know how to conduct an effective interview.
  • Practice: Have at least one crisis simulation a year to test and improve your plan and to remind staff that the organization is not immune to a crisis, but that you can get through it if you are prepared.

Look out for future columns with more detailed strategic advice on the various aspects of crisis management outlined here.

Chris Freimond, MBA, ABC, founded Chris Freimond Public Relations (www.cfpr.ca) in 2006. Prior to that he was general manager of the B.C. operations of a global public relations firm. He also worked for 20 years in southern Africa as a business and political journalist. He has an MBA from Royal Roads University with a specialty in Public Relations and Communications Management, and is an Accredited Business Communicator (ABC) with the International Association of Business Communicators. He is a former president of the B.C. chapter of IABC.

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