Monday, March 12, 2012

6 Words to Better Crisis Communications

One of the most common things PR people say when counseling clients on a crisis is to "get in front of the story." Here's the problem: there is no more getting in front of a story. Smart phones with cameras + social media = a story that is off and running before, in many cases, you're notified of the problem. This graph shows more people have mobile phones than have drinking water or electricity. Speed is still important and has to be a component of your crisis plan, but it can't be the goal of your crisis comms plan.

I've written many posts about crisis communications in today's saturated information environment, but it's taken time to get my thoughts down to their essence. It came to me last week when I was working with a client to refresh a crisis comms plan that had not been updated in about four years. The potential for this client's specific crisis still exists, but the environment in which it will unfold is completely new.

The new plan we devised has two directives that guide all communications activities both before and after the event cooks off.

First, when possible.
Most credible, always.

Everything communicators will do flows from these six words.

First, when possible.
Success here means you must have structures and procedures in place to facilitate a fast response. At a minimum, this means monitoring social media, on-going media training of spokespeople, and creating, updating or revising your crisis communications plan. It means making sure people inside your organization know who to call in the PR department when an adverse event strikes. Does your communications staff have the authority to issue brief initial statements? Can they send Tweets or issue website updates to confirm an event has happened without three layers of legal being involved? Are your procedures clear enough so that the most junior person on your staff can succeed during the initial response?

Most credible, always.
To achieve this, you have to have a robust presence in traditional and social media. Your website has to be a hub for information you publish about yourself. You have to be connected with the operational parts of your business so that you can explain complex subjects clearly, concisely and quickly, if need be. You have to have a program to train subject matter experts that can provide critical context during a crisis. You have to be ready to be relentless in your communications during a crisis, especially when it comes to correcting misinformation or refuting rumors.

The best thing to me about this approach is that it forces planning, preparation and practice to enable success. It requires communicators do more than maintain a stash of 5-Hour Energy in their desks.

If your senior leadership says your crisis plan has to get you "in front of the story," make sure you tell them that a crisis plan built to get "in front of the story" is built to fail.

Bill Salvin