Monday, April 23, 2012

Simple is Good. Not Always Better

A crisis comms plan has to work. That's the standard for success or failure. My mentor and friend, Bob Roemer, says a crisis comms plan has to be simple enough so that the most junior member of your staff can execute the plan solo, if needed. Great advice from a great crisis guy.

That's why a recent post on Ragan's PR Daily Europe page really rubbed me the wrong way. It shows insurance giant Chubb's crisis plan and praises its simplicity. Here's the plan as shown on the page under "Here's an outline of Chubb's Protocol":

• Identify and prepare for potential issues.
• Communicate with the customer service and legal teams.
• Get the facts and prepare statements. 
• This covers traditional and social media.
• Respond and correct the record. 
• Get in front of the story.
• “No comment” is a last-ditch response.
• Accurately convey your side of the story. 
The problem here is that it leaves too much room to think. Thinking is one of the last things you want people to do in a crisis. People respond how they are trained, and in the absence of a solid training program, this set of guidelines will drive the company towards disaster.

Let's take the "Monitor" section. Yes, you need to monitor traditional and social media. You may want to tell your people how as there are myriad ways to do that. Some are more effective and faster than others.

Next up, "Respond and correct the record." Great advice. Except that it's not really possible today. I was one of several hundred communicators BP used during the Deepwater Horizon/Gulf Oil Spill Response. One day, June 17, 2010, there were 27,000 stories published in traditional and social media worldwide. There weren't enough people to correct the record and there won't be for your crisis.

Let's move along to the "Respond" section. Big fan of responding. This saves your bacon in a crisis. So, "Get in front of the story." is worth some discussion. How exactly? 50% of people in the US have smartphones and can post photos to the web instantly. I talked about this in "6 words to better Crisis Communications." Getting in front of the story is great if you're responding to a crisis in 1985. In 2012, it is a waste of time. Your employees or those impacted by the crisis will post, text, tweet or upload to Facebook or other social media before you're notified you've had a problem. You've got better odds of winning Powerball than getting in front of the story.

Gil Rudawsky, the author of the Ragan post, wrote that he's slogged through 100-page crisis plans and that simple is better. He's half right. Simple is better. Your crisis plan doesn't need to be 100-pages, but it does need to be more in-depth than Chubb's 54 words.

Bill Salvin


  1. I haven't read the article, but wonder if Mr. Chubb's thoughts aren't maybe the very best OUTLINE of how to write a crisis comms plan. Starting from there, I could do a pretty decent job, I think. (Though agree about the "get in front of the story" bit.)

  2. James, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. I agree the Chubb plan is a great outline for a crisis plan. I very nice observation on your part. The plan has to be simple, but not so simple that it leads to confusion or indecision. Those two elements in a crisis are disastrous. Another good outline for a crisis plan can be found here:
    Thanks for reading.

  3. I'd add to James' comments that more than the outline ... the "meat" of a plan lies in the procedures and people ...

    the procedures need to be simple enough to be understood and implemented quickly while thorough enough to allow you to respond ...

    the people though are the key ... they have to be familiar with the plan and procedures and have enough "common sense" when to go beyond or skip parts of the plan ...

  4. Patrice, thank you for reading and weighing in. I always appreciate your thoughts here. You are exactly right... procedures that are simple to use and people who are trained to use them properly + the ability to improvise when required = a successful response.

  5. Agree with your general points, Bill. But I cannot agree with the sentence "Thinking is one of the last thing you want people to do in a crisis."

    Applying thoughtful, innovative solutions to problems is what separates a 101-level crisis response from a 301-level crisis response. A pro-forma response will only cover the basics.

  6. JD-Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your thoughts. I think we're not as far apart as it may appear. Thoughtful and innovative responses are great and usually happen with companies that practice their response and have a firm grasp on their vulnerabilities and their readiness. The reason you want to minimize free thinking in a crisis is that people rely on instinct if they haven't been trained and instincts tend to take you to the wrong place. The pressure of a crisis is a poor lab for innovation. I really appreciate your input to the discussion.

  7. The key to good crisis communication is getting it right before the crisis. This may be simple but it does require detail - time spent on this will in my experience (military) prevent issues later on. You can get in front of the story - in my view - most situations are predictable and therefore can be planned for. Gettng the responses ready in advance and nominated spokesmen prepared will pay dividends. You can only respond to reality and not dress it up - but if the lead spokesman gets it wrong from the outset there is not much you can do to correct it.

  8. Mark, appreciate the comment. I love your thought on responding to reality which is harder than it seems it would be. If you just play it straight, you can do a pretty good job staying with the story. Getting in front of the story is another matter. Just because you can predict the situation doesn't mean you can predict its path or the outcome. There are too many variables once a crisis begins that you usually have poor choices from which to choose. Training is the key. If you don't train you're not going to respond well. Thanks for reading, Mark.

  9. Skip King (via LinkedIn)April 24, 2012 at 7:04 AM

    Having written crisis plans for high-risk organizations for more than 15 years, there are some items in this article with which I disagree.

    It would appear to indicate that plans should cover anticipatable events. In my experience, creating a "playbook" for every possible event is a fool's errand. For one thing, such a plan would be encyclopedic in size. For another, the ones that bite are the ones one doesn't expect. Most importantly: if you can anticipate it, the organization should address the issues long before anything happens. In other words, this aspect of dealing with crisis is an OPERATIONAL responsibility, not one of crisis response.

    From my perspective, good emergency communications plans shouldn't be cookbooks. They should be toolboxes. They should provide the management team with the resources they need to measure potential story impact and should clearly identify the human and physical assets needed to manage an events of any size.

  10. Great point, Skip. "Good emergency plans shouldn't be cookbooks, they should be toolboxes." I wish I had said it that clearly. Thanks for reading and for commenting.

  11. Skip King (via LinkedIn)April 24, 2012 at 7:35 AM

    Thanks, Bill. From my perspective myriad key decisions must still be made during a major event, and no crisis communications plan, regardless of how skillfully written, can do that for us.

    What a good plan CAN do is to guide the important decisions that can be made in advance - examples: "who's going to monitor social media, where will we hold press conferences - and who/what are the backups if our first choice is unavailable?" A good plan provides clear, simple instructions for support personnel and provides checklists to ensure that each release of information is ticked and tied to the extent possible. And so forth.

    Lots more, but I don't wanna give away the store here. ;->

  12. Adam Roscoe (via LinkedIn)April 24, 2012 at 7:37 AM

    In my experience, there are several elements that help limit failure. [1] Formalized hazard identification (eg ERM process) and assessment of likelhood and impact of the key generic risks identified; [2] A comprehensive crisis management plan defining levels and demarcation of responsibility, both geograophically and functionally (eg how security response and crisis communications interact and who takes the lead relative to the type of crisis) [3] a thorough simulation of crisis scenarios to train crisis teams that will make them apply the plan and [4] a simple 'take home' checklist that is a 'quick and dirty' summary of the overall plan.

  13. Adam, if more companies did as you suggest there would be a lot more positive case studies to share. The "lines of demarcation" are critically important. If people don't know who they are working for, they will respond poorly. The one thing I would add to your list is a rundown of key stakeholders for the organization. If you can predict the crisis, you can predict who will be impacted, at least generally. Since much of crisis response is minimizing impact to people, this can give you a faster start to a solid response. I appreciate you taking the time to read and join the discussion.