A television news crew staking out your waiting room, blistering calls from shareholders, disheartening reports of human injury and suffering-all are clear indicators of a crisis. But the real evidence is inside your gut. It’s that sickening feeling that if things don’t get properly fixed, your business is going to be toast. Survival is job No. 1. Finding new opportunities can be job No. 2. Planning and preparation can help you do both.
Believe it or not, even though there’s no way to predict exactly when a crisis will hit or what the situation will be, there is a way to plan for it. Here are seven things you can do now to help you deal with a future crisis.
- Expect a crisis and plan for the worst
Nobody knows your business better than you. Start your crisis planning by thinking about your worst-case scenario. Remember, some of the most devastating crises can be triggered not by industrial accidents, but by draft documents that should have been shredded before disposal. Develop plans for your top three or four potential crises. Operational plans are business-specific— a chemical spill and a software glitch affecting bank accounts demand different actions. But communications planning principles apply across the board.
- Decide who will care about or be affected by your business crisis
In crisis communications planning, the first question to ask is, “Who is going to care?” Your list may include employees, shareholders, customers, politicians, the police and the media. Those are your target audiences. The list will change as the crisis evolves. People who desperately want information at the start of the event may have completely lost interest by the time you are struggling to handle the aftermath.
- Discover what the real issues and important messages are
Your next planning question is, “Why do they care?” Some people care because they must flee or die, that makes them momentarily the highest communications priority. In other cases, individuals will be concerned about their jobs, their investments or their reputations. Sometimes, people have an interest in damaging your industry or taking advantage of the crisis to gain a business edge on you. Analyze the situation. Then plan every communications initiative with specific audiences in mind, incorporating messages that address their issues.
- Pull your plans together in a useable format
Create a document that pulls together your business-specific action plan and your communications planning. Each stage of a crisis should be covered, along with the changing target audiences and the appropriate messaging. Keep it lean. You are almost guaranteed not to get the crisis you expect, so you want a generic document that expresses principles, not a rulebook dealing with specific situations. Circulate this survival guide among the people who will use it. Get their reactions; incorporate their feedback.
- Look to the legacy
An ancient clichÃ© reminds us that crisis is related to both change and opportunity. Unfortunately, the change is often as overwhelming as the opportunity is undetectable. You won’t find the opportunities if you dissemble, dither or retreat into denial. You’ll be a loser if your key audiences see you as obviously not in control. But if you come out of a crisis with people saying, “That situation was handled well,” you may be headed in the direction of new opportunity. Plan boldly and hope for the best.
- Choose and prepare your communicators
You need confident, well-prepared people to implement your plans. Your operational people showcase the quality of your organization by their actions. Choose your spokespeople carefully. Make it clear that they are the only ones who speak for the company. Everybody else keeps his or her trap shut. Train your chosen individuals on the techniques needed to communicate effectively with employees, shareholders, interest groups and the media. Make sure they know how to stay on message.
- Practice and review
Review your plans regularly. Check your existing plans to ensure they will work as new situations arise in a changing environment. Practice for a crisis. A full-scale rehearsal might be as popular as a lifeboat drill on a cruise ship, with everybody having something else they would rather be doing. But if you hit a real crisis, you are going to appreciate people who have some familiarity with their duties, their positions and the technologies they will be using.
Ron Truman (firstname.lastname@example.org) of Wellsaid Communications has been Director of Emergency Information for Ontario in nuclear and terrorism exercises and now runs his own communications company.
© 2005 Ron Truman