Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Structuring Your PR Team for Crisis Engagement

In my last post, I wrote about the evolution of crisis communications into crisis engagement. The evolution of Social Media provides new avenues for companies to connect with key stakeholders during an adverse event. Social Media also changes the communications dynamics of a crisis. "Rapid" doesn't begin to describe how quickly word of your crisis will start to spread.

For example, US Airways had a well-rehearsed crisis communications plan ready to go when Flight 1549 ditched into the Hudson River. They executed that plan exactly as designed. But, Social Media served as a quicker source of initial information than the company. You know things have to change if the plan is good and people respond according to plan and yet the company is still behind.

So how should a PR team be structured for optimal crisis engagement? While it will depend on the company, ideally a PR team should be organized so that there is very little difference between how it operates day-to-day and how it operates in a crisis. A company that has one structure for day-to-day PR functions and a separate one for crisis engagement is more likely to fail.

Here's one structure I proposed for a client:

What I like about this structure is that the way the team works day-to-day is how they will work in a crisis. Let me tell you a little about the thinking that went into this structure.

Chief Communicator
This role is pretty self-explanatory. In my thinking, the Chief Communicator will work across all the teams and serve as the link between the PR team and senior management. A good Chief Communicator will provide leadership. A great Chief Communicator will run interference and keep the good idea ferries from interfering with team once it hits its stride.

Response Team
This team will be the front lines of the response. They will communicate with external and internal audiences so that messages are consistent to multiple groups. A good response team gets into a rhythm during a crisis, and develops relationships with reporters and others. That puts the response team in a good position to also monitor traditional and social media. While outside resources could perform the monitoring function, the response team is immersed in the crisis and can perform this more deftly than an outside firm. If you have a small staff, an outside firm can provide extra arms and legs for the response team and is worth considering.

Strategic Messaging Team
One of the hardest things in a crisis is getting time to think. Separating the responders from the folks who develop the messages helps provide the time for the Strategic Messaging Team to stand up and begin creating the messages the response team will need. This is the big picture team that sorts out whether ads need to be pulled or special ads developed. This team will also focus, to the extent possible, on longer term issues, campaigns and messages.

Stakeholder Outreach Team
Relationships with customers, potential customers, vendors and the government require special attention and that's why I have a separate team for communicating with these critical stakeholders. These are stakeholders who believe they have a special relationship with a company and because of that, they deserve special attention.

Admin/Functional Support
This is one of the areas that often gets overlooked in crisis communications. You need an exceptional administrative assistant to keep non-communication challenges away from the people who need to spend every minute possible communicating. Ideally, the IT support is embedded with the PR team so that any issues with the company Website can be handled quickly. Given that a major crisis will probably overwhelm most companies Website, you need an IT superstar on your team. You don't want to be calling the Help Desk while the building is burning.

This structure works for my client, but I'm sure there are dozens of variations possible to make it work for other companies.

The goal here is to have people realize the crisis comms game has changed. You don't want to be ready for your last crisis. You want to be ready for the next crisis.

Bill Salvin

Hat tip to Jeff Carr and Kari Fluegel of United Space Alliance for the many discussions we had that helped shape my thinking. Thanks, guys!

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