Organizations can spend millions on marketing and PR efforts, but if they face a public crisis, they’ll receive far more attention than they ever could have purchased and their response to the crisis will shape the organization’s image far more than paid advertising.
That’s why planning ahead and creating a crisis communications plan is such a good investment. It’s just like insurance. You hope you don’t need it but it’s a mistake not to have it. Creating a crisis plan can cost very little, and it can mean the difference between an organization thriving through adversity and closing its doors forever.
Here are six steps an organization can take right now to help with crisis readiness.
Establish a chain of command. A clear chain of command is the most important thing an organization can do to improve its readiness. This means establishing who will make decisions during a crisis, including back-ups, and who should be consulted. It’s likely, for example, that the Legal Department will want to vet any communications during a response. It’s essential, then, to choose a member of the Legal Department who understands some of the exigencies of crisis communications, the need for speed, and that “no comment” might work in a legal context but not in the world of communications.
Failing to clarify this chain of command in advance will increase the already sizeable amount of chaos that accompanies a crisis.
Establish a crisis team. A significant crisis will create a tremendous amount of unplanned work … none of which is a part of anyone’s normal job description. It’s essential that an organization establish its crisis team in advance. Ideally it will include someone in Human Resources, IT, and Legal and Communications, as well as administrative help and of course a strong executive presence.
Identify and prepare a spokesperson. The head of an organization will likely make an initial statement, but he or she might not be speaking continually with the press. Who will that person be? And will that person be trained to work with the media?
Training can make a huge difference to a spokesperson’s performance during a crisis. Practice can help a spokesperson understand what messages they want to share and how to answers the media’s most difficult questions.
Prepare infrastructure. If a crisis hits an organization on a weekend, the communications team should be able to post an announcement from anywhere, any time. Similarly, an organization should ensure that its website is capable of handling a dramatically enlarged amount of traffic without crashing.
Compile lists. Every organization has unique audiences that it needs to communicate with during a crisis — shareholders, media contacts, government contacts, vendors, suppliers, employees, third-party experts. Compiling these lists in advance helps organizations make sure they reach the right people and it saves precious time on administrative tasks when it matters most.
Understand social media. If a high profile crisis hits your organization, scores of people will be using social media to talk about the event. Ideally, an organization should be able to respond using the same social media. We suggest that organizations start their Facebook and Twitter presences now if they haven’t already: among other things, this ensures that good information about the organization will be included on these channels, that the organization has an opportunity to listen and track public sentiment, and that satisfied customers and allies have a venue for voicing their support.
We also recommend that organizations keep a blog (which will serve as their home base for all social media), and that they have an understanding of how to search social media, using services like Technorati, Social Mention, Board Reader, Delicious, Reddit, and Twitter and Facebook. These days crises can unfold entirely in the world of social media – what you don’t know can hurt you!