Can You Plan Crisis Communications?

Inquiries inevitably follow a crisis. Reporters, employees, customers, members of the board, suppliers, the social media universe – all clamor for answers often while companies are still responding to an event and are least prepared to deliver strategically developed, thoughtful, detailed statements.

The early hours of a crisis are a critical time period. If a company doesn’t help shape the perception of the situation in the public’s mind – or if the company’s response is incomplete, inconsistent or, worse, if the company appears to lack an understanding of the magnitude of the event or to be lying about it – traditional and social media will create a story for the public. Once that happens, it can be impossible to change first impressions.

Effective, planned crisis communications can prevent the misperceptions that lead to loss of reputation and revenue.

Planning the Unexpected

Is planning for crisis even realistic? Many people think of crises as sudden events that appear out of the blue and disappear just as quickly, like a thunderstorm. This is the reason some communicators offer for not planning ahead.

That seems logical: How can you write messaging to address something if you don’t know what it is; when, where, why, or how it will occur; and who will be affected?

But, I’d argue that crises rarely happen by surprise. Say, for example, your company or one of its branches or franchises is located in a region prone to earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding, or tornados. While you may not know exactly when a natural disaster will strike, it’s still possible to prepare a communications (and business continuity) plan to respond when they do.

Likewise, working with appropriate subject-matter experts in your organization, it shouldn’t take too much imagination to brainstorm the causes of other potential crises and get plans in place to address them.

In fact, negative public perception and negative media attention are far more likely if a company is believed to have ignored a minor situation, or allowed a grievance to fester, when it could have been resolved. These situations, improperly managed, can quickly escalate into full-blown issues.

In the Midst of Crisis, It’s Still Possible to Tell Your Story

When you’re prepared it’s possible, even during disaster, to turn on CNN or scan Twitter and find positive stories and messages about your company.

Two examples of this premise in action, one positive, one negative:

Johnson & Johnson’s response to Tylenol tampering in the mid-80s (an older example, and before the time of social media. Improperly handled, this crisis could have irreparably harmed the public’s confidence in the product. Yet with careful crisis management, which included swift, strategic messaging that focused on the company’s values and how they related to the public’s safety, the company was able to protect its reputation among consumers.)

Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s erratic communications, which continued for several months after a massive earthquake and tsunami hit the northwest coast of Japan, critically damaging its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant

Crisis & Corporate Reputation

An excellent starting point in preparing for crisis is to focus on your organization’s key area of competence. (Note that this assumes you and/or your department already are responsible for crisis communications and coordinating with key partners in Risk Management, Business Continuity, Human Resources, Legal, and Security. Getting buy-in for crisis communications is a topic for different post, another day.)

If you’re developing crisis communications plans, try this exercise. Write the answers to the following questions and include them in your brainstorming:

  • What is your company’s key competency?
  • What is the organization known for?
  • What’s your company’s tag line or motto?
  • What’s your mission statement?
  • How is this competency reflected in the organization’s values and business operations?

Now, for each of the answers, dig deeper:

  • What are the worst events or rumors that could befall us in our key area of competency?
  • How might someone twist our tag line, motto or mission statement to attack the company?
  • What kind of failure in the way we operate might reflect not just on our ability to deliver products or services, but directly on our values?

Finally:

  • Develop messaging to address each of the scenarios you’ve brainstormed.

There are several reasons why this is a valuable exercise:

  • It will start the process of brainstorming around where potential crises might crop up.
  • It will help you to develop messages that reiterate the company’s commitment to excellence and its values, which is crucial during a crisis.
  • It will help you discover information or resources you may need to answer questions, explore scenarios, or develop messages, but don’t have right now.

Natural disasters, product tampering, questions about your company’s competency – and worse. This is the stuff nightmares are made of. They keep CEOs and communications people awake at night. I’ve raised these difficult and distressing issues – and there are plenty more – for a reason. Strategic, reputation-saving communications rarely can be developed on the spot when a crisis hits.

On Thursday: I’ll provide additional checklists that will help in crisis communications planning and messaging.