A crisis can strike any business at any time, sometimes as a result of things you can control (we call that a self-inflicted crisis-- think, a poorly thought-out social media post). Sometimes, a crisis comes out of the blue and you must react fast and rely on the planning, preparation, and strategy you should have prepared beforehand to manage crisis communications and protect your business. We’ll share some of our Insider Media Relations™ crisis communication strategies honed through years of experience in the media and now, in helping clients build Brand Protection PR™ to grow and protect their businesses- even in a crisis.
This week, we’ve been helping a client with the devastating grocery store shooting in Boulder, Colorado. This situation began Monday afternoon and very sadly ended with 10 people dead and a community reeling and just starting a long and difficult healing process. Our job has been to help support the client with the crush of information, decisions, and message and media management that happen all at once in a situation like this.
In a crisis, time is- of course- of the essence. At the same time, the need to be compassionate, strategic, and accurate is greater than ever. How do you manage these competing demands, the glare of the media, and the need to take care of your employees and those affected? This is where you need a crisis communications plan.
What's in a successful crisis communications plan?
It’s useful to take a look at some research for managing a crisis situation. This wonderful Harvard Business School article about crisis leadership explains the Stockdale Paradox. It’s named for Admiral James Stockdale, a prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven and a half years. He said what helped him make it through that harrowing ordeal was his mindset:
“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Developing a crisis plan NOW will help steel your resolve that in a crisis situation, you WILL prevail over the momentary crisis you’re facing, and develop the discipline to deal with every day, every development with straightforward, direct, and calm determination.
The M&C 8-Step Crisis Communications Plan
We start every crisis or potential crisis situation with the M&C 8-step crisis checklist. Let's take a look at each step.
Step 1: Define: crisis or issue?
When the phone rings and the client on the other end says there's a problem (or worse, when we see a client's name in breaking news) the first thing we do is help define whether this is an issue or a crisis.
* If lives are in jeopardy, this is a crisis. Immediately move to Step 2.
But let's look at the most common situations you're likely to face, and for that, we ask the question: is this a headache or a heart attack?
When you have a headache, you take some aspirin, drink a glass of water, and see if it gets better. Perhaps you've got someone posting unfair or even untrue comments about your business on one of your social channels. Your first instinct might be to jump in and set the record straight.
Consider waiting for a little while. Set social media alerts or a Google Alert and keep an eye on it to see if it's growing or fading out. See if some of your loyal customers or fans come to your defense based on the trust and relationship you've built with them over time. If you haven't made a mistake in your social media content, tone, or timing, it's very likely the brouhaha will spin itself out. Immediately jumping in with a comment may, in fact, fan the flames and cause a bigger issue. In other words, this is a headache, an issue to keep an eye on and see if it goes away on its own.
It goes without saying: a heart attack is a crisis issue that needs immediate attention. Maybe it's not life-threatening, but a threat to property, permanent reputation damage, or a potential lawsuit? That's a heart attack and it's time to activate your crisis plan ASAP.
Step 2: Pull up your crisis plan
A crisis plan is a lot like a will: you know you need it, but it's tough to get around to actually putting one together. No one wants to think about life's most difficult moments. Get yourself over the hump of "crisis planning inertia" by drafting a crisis plan that's no more than a couple pages long. It doesn't have to be an exhaustive 30-page document covering every detail, and in many cases, it's better if it's short, simple, and easy to read.
Get your C-suite, your executive team, or even a trusted colleague to help think through the most likely two or three crisis scenarios and draft a crisis plan outline based on an if/when scenario: IF this happens, THEN we will do this.
Decide who’s in charge and define team roles. Who will make decisions? Who will talk to the media? Who will monitor social media and update messaging? Who will make sure information gets to employees first?
Get connected: make sure you have contacts for everyone and know how you're going to most quickly communicate: by email, phone call, or text.
Draft a holding statement: a short, simple, "fill in the blanks" statement that can be easily updated in a crisis situation. More on that in Step 3. Save it where everyone who might need it has access to it.
Think about steps you will take to start refilling the trust bucket, repairing relationships, and rebuilding your reputation after a crisis occurs.
If you've already got a crisis plan, grab it, review it, get everybody on the same page and get moving.
Step 3: Set alerts and write or update your holding statement
Things are going to start moving really fast at this point. Now's the time to use as many shortcuts as you can get your hands on.
Set automated alerts based on search terms for this event in Google Alerts, Meltwater, or your media monitoring system. This will help you keep an eye on developments as they happen.
Draft or update your holding statement. This is just a statement that says “We are aware of the situation unfolding, we are working to find out more, and we will have an update at a specific time."
It's a very short, simple outline that can be quickly updated, posted and pinned to the top of social media, distributed to the media, or published on your website when something happens.
It should look something like: "We are aware <describe the situation> is happening in <location>. We are most concerned about the wellbeing of our <employees/partners/customers>. We are actively monitoring the situation and will have more information in <time frame>." A short, factual, compassionate statement tells your stakeholders that you know what's going on, you're working to repair the situation, and your main concern is people.
Step 4: Go!
We have a system in place at M&C Communications where our three roles are clearly defined: Jordan grabs the lights and camera to shoot video for the client, Diane grabs the go-bag (more on that in a minute) to set up a mobile command center, and I take over coordinating the team in the field, monitor media coverage and develop/update messaging.
During Monday's crisis event, we were on location within two hours to support the client. There is no time to waste, even for directions. Diane and Jordan grabbed their go-bags, jumped in their cars, and headed to Boulder, while I sent them instructions on where to meet and kept them up to date on what was happening as they were driving.
Step 5: Review/control messaging
As mentioned in Step 3- ideally you have a holding statement that can be quickly adapted and posted to your social media channels and website. Now is the time to take a look at your other communications and make sure you’re controlling messaging that may be previously scheduled.
Pause your social media feeds if need be. Previously scheduled cheery content is going to come off as seriously tone-deaf in an emergency situation. Consider canceling your TV and radio commercials if you have them. Check your blog content and other places where you might be publishing messaging that doesn’t fit the situation. Then, get started on drafting short, informational statements based on the new information and questions coming in, and get ready for a press conference.
We use the short mnemonic VIP for very serious emergency press conference situations: acknowledge the VICTIMS, show compassion for those IMPACTED, and express your cooperation with the POLICE investigation.
Keep the first press conference short, direct, only share confirmed information, let the media know when there will be another press conference or more information available, and end the press conference as quickly as possible. The media, understandably, will have many more questions than you may have answers. Respect that it's their job to ask, acknowledge that you're still getting more information, and be transparent about when you'll have more details to share. Follow up later with specific reporters if need be.
Remember, it's important to communicate with your employees first. It may be that your best opportunity to communicate with them is through a press conference, but as soon as you can, reach out to employees directly and communicate about their concerns: Is the workplace safe? Should they come to work today/tomorrow/next week? Will they be paid if the workplace is closed for an extended period? Are there other resources available? Provide information and support based on the scale of the crisis event, and make sure your employees hear from you first, if possible.
Step 6: Manage the location
We set up a mobile command center with all our go-bag supplies: tent, table, chairs, communications equipment, a backup generator, pens and paper, even snacks and water. You can find a link to our crisis go-bag checklist here.
Also think about setting up an area for the media who may be covering the event and see what you can do to make them more comfortable as they do their jobs as well: bathrooms, water, etc.
Step 7: Review
At the end of every phone call, every interview, every press conference, and every day, jot down your notes, who you’ve talked to, and details of the situation in a shared document so you don’t miss information or forget to follow up with a journalist or partner.
A social media review is a valuable place to gain insights into what might happen next. Check your own social media feeds, of course, but don't forget to check the Twitter feeds of the journalists covering the story, the comments they're getting, and the questions the public is asking. Search the hashtags trending around a story and see what people who don't follow you are saying. A Twitter review can uncover simmering sentiment that turns into a left-field question from the media and help you be prepared with an answer.
The review stage can also help throughout a crisis. We use a three-part summary to help our clients understand the media landscape and where the media is likely to go next on a story.
Current media and social media review: what's the scale of coverage and is it increasing or decreasing? What's the social media chatter?
Trends: is national media covering one angle and local media another? Are certain reporters covering specific angles?
Where the media will go next: based on what we know about the general structure of an event, the pace of news coverage, and the social media chatter around the event, we help clients get prepared for the questions the media will likely ask next.
Step 8: Refill the trust bucket
What's a trust bucket? Think of it as a bank account of goodwill toward your company, brand, or business. If you've built strong, authentic relationships with your stakeholders, customers, and employees, you can draw on that reservoir of goodwill to protect your brand for a little while, but that account balance needs to be replaced.
This is the most delicate element of the 8-step crisis management process. It’s a matter of following media coverage closely, thinking carefully about where the media will go next on a story, and compassionately, authentically providing support to those impacted by the incident.
It's also not a one-and-done process. Even though your trust bucket may have been emptied all at once, you have to refill it drop by drop through constant, compassionate, and authentic actions.
How to recover from a business crisis
Let's revisit the useful example of Admiral Stockdale and the Stockdale Paradox. As a business owner and company leader, you must set the tone: we WILL get through this terrible situation together by facing the crisis in front of us directly and with calm determination. By being prepared, working quickly, transparently, and compassionately, and facing each challenge with resolve, you will be able to lead your team through any challenge.