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

15 comments:

  1. Pithy and right on the money, Bill.

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  2. Hello Bill ... a great post as always. One of the mistakes of social media enthusiasts among crisis communicators is to forget to sync up their SM posture with their website.

    A crisis will occur and they'll be firing up on all cylinders on social networks ... and even a few hours after ... the website is still focused on marketing or sales ...

    It's imperative to coordinate everything and avoid acting as if the people handling your social media response were in a dark room somewhere, far removed from the rest of your crisis management team ...

    You're right on about building enough trust before so that your website and SM accounts become the go-to places for credible info.

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  3. Thanks, Dave. I appreciate that.

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  4. Patrice, thanks a lot for that. People get so focused on speed that they fail to coordinate their actions. It's more than just connecting with the media, but connecting with all stakeholders in a crisis.

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  5. Bingo.

    Our most recent revamp doesn't pretend to cover every eventuality -- it instead calls for quick identification of the people who need to vet the strategy, and then getting them in the same room. When time is of the essence, you need the right people eyeballing each other, not emailing each other.

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    1. That's an excellent observation, Ike. I've seen plans that focus obsessively on scenarios (including a nuclear strike on a plant in Iowa...seriously) but not on the team that will get them through the crisis. I appreciate the comment.

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  6. I agree completely with the focus on being aware of what people are saying about your issue via social media. How do counter the layers of road blocks in an organization where the idea of "slow, measured response" is institutionalized like we have here in the military?

    Great post!

    Semper Fi,
    Fish

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    1. Hi Fish-Hope you're well on the other side of the world. My first reaction was to get them to measure faster. In the absence of that, keep pushing for a faster, balanced response. If you think of the audience you're trying to reach in a crisis, the slower you are, the less of an authority you will be. Not because you aren't credible, but because the audience has found someplace else to get the information in your absence and you've become irrelevant. I've never worked a crisis where you didn't have to keep pushing to get information out faster. Just don't stop pushing. Thanks for reading Fish!

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  7. Phillip Clark (via LinkedIn)March 14, 2012 at 8:26 AM

    Bill,
    An excellent observation and I love the 6 words. Too much time is spent on preparing a select few in a company to deal with "crisis response" and "crisis communications" and not enough on making sure everyone in a company is prepared (or at least ready as best as possible) to face a crisis. Crisis planning is for everyone in a company...and their families. Yes, the families. I have been involved in many crisis were a company essentially asks their employees to forsake their families. Not going to happen. I also have seen companies that find ways to assure their families are looked after. Guess which ones responded and survived the best???

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    1. Phillip, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. You're right that most companies don't do enough to involve everyone in the company in crisis planning. Even if it is simply ensuring people have information so that they aren't distracted and can keep doing their jobs. The companies that tend to involve families are ones that deal with routine natural disasters (i.e. hurricanes).

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  8. Bill,
    You chose all the right words, including your 6 words, to summarize the mandatory steps in crisis planning and management--monitoring, training, updating, practice, presence and authority.
    Here are some more words about planning. I agree that crisis planning cannot cover every eventuality. Instead it should develop out of a thorough risk assessment that involves the entire organization. The planners should also look outside to determine what issues and problems have plagued similar organizations or industries.
    With that information in hand, the crisis management and crisis communication teams can prioritize what is most likely to become a problem that generates broad public interest and media scrutiny. These issues or problems should be the focus of the planning efforts.

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    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, Carole. You are right on that proper risk assessments can focus the work of the crisis management and crisis comms teams. In today's media world not only does a company have to prepare for the likely events that would generate broad attention and threaten its reputation, it also has to have thought through events that are low likelihood, but high impact (i.e. BP Gulf Oil Spill, on which I worked) so that they aren't overwhelmed. Thanks again for reading.

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  9. Laurel Erickson (via LinkedIn)March 15, 2012 at 11:36 AM

    If there is any group of people who deal with "crisis" mentality on a regular basis, it is television journalists. Or soldiers in war. Sometimes, the savvy is very similar.

    There's no magic "message" that can save a team locked in inertia and fear.. The best approach is to train employees to face crisis, think quickly and act with purpose. You can't throw c-suit and reception into a real life fiasco, but you can conduct mock exercises, interview rehearsals and digital outreach based on an imagined crisis.

    If companies and their PR were as agile as most local television reporters, they would navigate public relation disasters without so many missteps.

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    1. Hi Laurel, thanks for reading and taking the time to offer your perspective. As a former TV reporter I get what your saying. There are times when those responding to a crisis wait for the perfect option instead of a good option that moves the response in the right direction. I tell people I counsel that once the crisis begins you usually are forced to choose between lousy options. You can pick a, b or c, but every option is some form of compromise. Since TV reporters have a forcing function of a deadline, they get adept at making those choices. Most of the really good PR people out there (and there are many of them) have journalism in their past. I really appreciate the comment.

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  10. Thanks, now I have a new mantra! Great post!

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