It only takes one poorly managed crisis to ruin a brand’s reputation.
And a crisis media management incident can happen to any organisation, no matter how big or small.
We’ve written a number of blogs looking at how organisations have responded to crises during the past few years. And there is much that other organisations can learn from those incidents, regardless of whether they were handled well or badly.
But planning for a crisis is also crucial and a key component of that preparation is the crisis plan.
That’s why we are focusing this blog on what needs to be included in an effective plan.
An important place to start a crisis communication plan is to define what would actually constitute a crisis for your organisation.
There is no doubt the definition of a crisis has shifted in recent years, driven by the rise of confected outrage on social media.
And that means it is more important than ever that an organisation is clear on what it considers to be a full-blown crisis which needs escalating to the top and what it thinks will be a passing storm that will cause little or no lasting damage.
One of the first things a crisis plan should do is identify an organisation’s crisis team.
These will be the people who will lead the organisation’s communication response when something goes wrong.
Typically it will include the CEO, other members of the senior leadership team and representatives from HR, communications and legal. If your organisation has customer service advisers they also need to be represented. You will also need to be able to bring in subject matter experts to this team when specialist knowledge is required to resolve particular issues.
Team members need to be assigned specific roles.
And because crises have an annoying habit of happening outside of normal working hours, make sure the plan includes out of hours contact details for each team member.
Identify your vulnerabilities
Crises come in many shapes and sizes and, as we said earlier, in the social media age the definition of what exactly constitutes a crisis has shifted.
Now things which may have previously gone unnoticed or unreported have the potential to cause huge damage to reputations.
Although your organisation is unlikely to be able to predict what will cause it to go into full crisis media management mode, it should be able to anticipate its vulnerabilities and forecast potential storms on the horizon.
Once you’ve identified the impactful issues you can begin to consider how you would respond to each one.
Early warning systems
There are also ways to see that a crisis is building before an organisation feels the force of the incident.
Social media is particularly important. As more and more people take to social media to express anger and frustration and live report incidents, a social media manager is likely to be the first person in an organisation to become aware of a crisis.
Social media managers also need to monitor the social media accounts of high-ranking bosses within the organisation in case they say anything controversial – journalists and customer will be paying attention to them. Just look at the damage caused by the tweets of Tesla boss Elon Musk.
Organisations should also monitor what is happening in their industry as crises and negative headlines can also be created by association.
And there should be regular contact with legal and HR departments in case there are any issues they are aware of which have the potential to build into a reputational crisis.
Pre-prepared statements which can be easily adapted for a specific incident are a key part of preparing for a crisis media management incident.
They play a crucial role in enabling organisations to respond almost immediately to an incident and buy them some time to get a better understanding of exactly what has happened.
It is important to remember that when the worst happens, journalists and social media users will not expect you to have all the information at your fingertips. But they will want to see that you are aware of an incident and that you are trying to resolve the situation.
As holding statements actually don’t go into any great detail, they can easily be prepared in advance.
The default position for many organisations seems to be to use their CEO as their spokesperson when they find themselves dealing with a crisis.
And there are many benefits to this approach. It shows visible leadership and accountability and often the CEO will be an experienced and articulate spokesperson.
But if you use your most high-profile person at the start, how can you escalate your response if the situation worsens? It also creates an expectancy that the CEO will front every media interview during the crisis.
Additionally, subject specialists may be better placed to tackle the tough questions from journalists. For example, an IT director could be a better spokesperson in a crisis involving an IT failure or data breach.
Whatever your organisation decides, it is important to know who your spokespeople are before a crisis strikes and to ensure that they have had recent media training.
We say ‘spokespeople’ because many crises are long-running and it would be very difficult for the same spokesperson to continue to front all media interviews.
If your organisation operates across multiple sites, consider having spokespeople available at each location. Regional spokespeople can add huge credibility to a response.
Don’t forget your colleagues
In a fast-moving crisis it can be easy to focus on your external messages and forget about your internal comms.
But an organisation’s employees are its ambassadors and can be strong advocates.
Organisations need to make sure their teams are aware of what the company is doing to handle the situation.
A workforce which feels engaged and is experiencing visible leadership is less likely to give potentially damaging information to a journalist or post something unhelpful on social media.
It’s vital internal colleagues are involved in crisis communications and are represented in the crisis team.
The media and employees are just two audiences that will need to be targeted.
An effective plan will also look at how customers, stakeholders and regulators will be kept informed.
It is also worth considering how you will notify people living near your site in case of a crisis affecting your neighbours, such as a fire or a chemical spill.
You will not want to be searching for contact information for any of these audiences during the pressure of a crisis, so ensure this detail is included in the plan.
It is worth considering in a crisis comms plan where you would hold a press conference if one was needed. Do you have a suitable room? Do you have parking that could cope with media satellite trucks? Do you have spokespeople who could cope with the unique demands of that environment?
A crisis plan may look good on paper, but you are not going to know if it is truly fit for purpose until you put it to the test.
Regular crisis communication exercises and simulations are crucial for putting plans through their paces and good ones will replicate the stress and organisation would experience if the worst was to happen.
Everyone involved in your crisis plan needs to be included in the exercise. If you would like Media First to organise a simulation exercise for your company, contact us here.
After the crisis it is important to look at what worked well and where improvements could be made. Would you do things differently if faced with a similar situation in the future? Would you use the same spokespeople? Do your spokespeople need more media training? Do you need to look at different social media monitoring tools?
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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