For employee communicators, dealing with an organizational crisis and putting together a crisis communications plan is surely the toughest component of their job. By their very nature, crises are unplanned, unscheduled, and sometimes unprecedented.
But that doesn’t mean you should be unprepared.
Business crises can run the gamut from weather emergencies to employee misconduct to organizational failure. I’ve dealt with situations ranging from blizzards and floods to technology glitches, worker arrests and multi-million dollar lawsuits. During one particularly dark week in April 2013, I coordinated with our firm’s emergency management team as we tried to account for colleagues who were running the Boston Marathon when the bombs went off, and then days later instructed staff to ‘shelter-in-place’ as the bombers were being hunted down minutes away from our offices.
While all these situations carry a certain amount of anxiety (some more than others), I can honestly say there was always a calmness with which our team of professionals dealt with each incident. And that’s largely due to the fact we had a well-developed, documented and tested crisis communications plan in place.
Know What’s Coming in Crisis Communications
When any one of the above crises — and more — reared its ugly head, we employee communicators knew the drill. We gathered facts. We assessed the situation. We analyzed the immediate and future impacts upon the firm’s many constituencies — employees, clients, stakeholders or local community. From what we learned, we then developed statements, talking points and Q&As tailored to each of these discrete audiences, because despite overlap, each group had their own unique questions and concerns.
Because our crisis communications plan had been previously discussed and rehearsed, we also knew how we’d deliver the messages and who would be doing the delivery. Depending on the nature of the crisis, information might be conveyed via cascading manager chain, broadcast email, intranet, emergency hotline, website, social media, or press release. Or all of the above.
Clearly, there’s a load of logistics that go into a proper crisis communications plan. But the overriding rule is to communicate openly and honestly. That means functional areas talking to each other frequently from the outset of any emergency. Department heads and senior leaders all need to know the facts and quickly get on the same page before corporate communicators can do their job. Failure at the top to reach consensus on an organization’s response to a crisis will doom a plan from the start, no matter how well-rehearsed or smartly written. Information needs to flow freely. We all know nature abhors a vacuum. When employees and other audiences aren’t getting information, confidence in your enterprise will erode. This can put communicators in an awkward position if senior execs are dragging their feet in a crisis. The best advice is to be ready with a workaround solution where you know those ‘snags’ might take place.
Whether your role is fully devoted to corporate communications or just involves one aspect of it, chances are you’ll be called upon when a crisis hits. No matter how much you think you’re ready, that first call is always a bit of a shock. But it shouldn’t be unexpected. Know exactly what you and your team will have to do when urgency strikes. Get prepared now so you can manage a crisis.
Then the crisis won’t manage you.