Crisis comms part two – what happens if you don’t have a plan?

In a previous post I set out the five main stages to a crisis management plan and argued against Henry Kissinger’s maxim that: “In a crisis the most daring course is often the safest.”

But what happens if you don’t have a plan?

A recent study of PR in further education indicated that a third of college teams don’t have a crisis communications plan. Is there anything that can be usefully done?

So you have no issues management plan and no crisis management plan. The satellite news vans are ten minutes away from your office. What then? Don’t give up on Aristotle’s advice that ‘the wise man does not expose himself needlessly to danger completely’. There is still time to regain some control. Here are some things to consider as the clock ticks down:

  • Point of contact – Do all staff who may be contacted by media know who the point of contact is for these types of enquiries? Has the switchboard operator been briefed on how to field calls? Does the security guard anticipate that journalists might try and enter the building or question staff leaving the building? Who/how many people are monitoring social media activity and can others be found to assist with enquiries if needs be?
  • Spokesperson – Significant issues or crises require senior spokespeople, often CEOs; who speaks on your behalf in a crisis is understandably seen as a reflection of how seriously you are taking the issue. Is yours media trained and if not, who is? In some cases a written statement is the best option. Whatever happens you’ll need a single source of information going in and out of the organisation.
  • Messages – In a crisis, you should be genuinely concerned about the situation, accept responsibility for it if appropriate (but not necessarily blame), apologise and explain what has happened as far as you know, and what is going to happen next. Find out more and move towards resolving the incident so, when it is at en end, you can prevent its recurrence. Never speculate about what might have happened, make defensive excuses, blame anybody else, let anybody resign (immediately) or over-promise.
  • Room to manoeuvre – Do you think it is more sensible to provide a room (with hot food, Wi-Fi and coffee) for journalists within an organisation (but away from, say, the area where you might be comforting relatives) in which you can answer queries as soon as possible and keep speculation levels to a minimum, or to keep media standing outside in the rain waiting to buttonhole your colleagues?
  • Key facts – Do you have a key facts sheet that sets out what the business does? If you are a journalist looking for 350 words by noon and you have a choice between fact and speculation you will (generally) choose the facts…if they are available.
  • Broadcast basics – If you are working with breakfast broadcasters do you know how to get into the right building at an ungodly hour if they need to run power cables to vans?  Will I understand your key messages if I am watching the resulting piece on television while ironing my shirt and feeding the dog?
  • Social media – However you are planning to deal with traditional media interest you should allow time and effort for monitoring social media and understand its significance as a (two-way) communications channel in crises. Take care to prioritise, be open and understanding, be quick, outline next steps and tell your story clearly. Social media can make an issue look like a crisis or turn an issue into a crisis. It’s likely to be the catalyst that speeds up your response times and can be the most effective research tool available to you.

There is a very quick and basic practical checklist but it is no substitute for forward planning.

The scenarios you are working to avoid that I’ve (sadly) experienced first-hand include:

  • the communications manager ringing an advice line at the same time as the Sun journalist was asking her CEO questions
  • the PR agency that attempted to capitalise on unexpected interest from TV news channels but could not find the keys for the building in which they wanted film
  • a cosmetics company, having been asked to respond in a radio broadcast following a product recall, that fielded a spokesperson who had not been media trained, knew no key messages and had no idea of the line of questioning.

 

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Crisis management – why Aristotle was right and Kissinger wrong. Some basics.

I have been advising on crisis management for about a decade now and have written a couple of guides on the topic – including ‘Handling Public Difficulties’ with CIPR President Sue Wolstenholme, alongside whom I’ve delivered training on the topic since 2007.

Here is a condensed draft of a chapter commissioned for a book on PR issues that sadly never saw the light of day; I thought it was worth recycling as a couple of blog posts. These are the very basics of crisis planning, but hopefully they’re useful aide-memoires. There has been a huge amount written on this subject, so what I’ve tried to do here is provide a digest of practical advice.

***

Aristotle was right and Kissinger was wrong.

“The wise man does not expose himself needlessly to danger,” said the Greek philosopher.

“In a crisis the most daring course is often the safest,” wrote the American.

Close, Henry, but no cigar. What is true of the Cuban missile crisis is not true of professional crisis communications. Daring should not come in to it. It’s all in the planning.

Issues Management

There are situations when unexpected media interest is viewed as entirely benign and welcome. More likely, you are dealing with it because there is a problem. You are facing a crisis of some kind. A building has burnt down. The finance director has disappeared. There has been a crash, an arrest, an accident. Customers are complaining angrily on radio, daytime television, social media. There is a sudden strike, a product recall, a supplier out of business, a vote of no confidence.

So how do you deal with these crises communications? The Aristotelian answer is – don’t have the crisis in the first place. Manage the issue.

In academic terms, a crisis is a stage in the life-cycle of an issue, the other stages being: potential, emerging, current, and dormant. Issues management is the practice of identifying an issue in the two earlier stages when there are still opportunities for influencing the outcome and thus reducing risk, creating opportunities and managing reputation.

The role of the communications professional in issues management can vary tremendously depending on the type of organisation and the role of public relations within it.

If you are the communications director of a large utility company you may well invest heavily in issues management training and consultancy from a specialist communications agency, not least because it could be a perquisite of your corporate insurance package.

If you are a public sector organisation such as a council or a police force  you may have created an issues management group which seeks to identify emergent issues, understand who they are likely to effect and how, and plan your next steps – are you going to change what you do, or try and change stakeholder or publics’ attitudes to it?

Crisis Management Planning

But let’s imagine that your organisation either has no issues management structure in place or this is an issue with a particularly fast metabolism – the time between the potential and current stages is extremely short. Events are essentially unpredictable; a member of staff is a victim of a serious assault, a runaway lorry crashes into a factory, volcano ash grounds your entire sales force.

Aristotle still stands. Crisis management planning is your bulwark when issues management has failed or cannot apply. Ideally a crisis management plan is refreshed and tested once a year and that practice session involves representatives from across your business, key publics, emergency services and, if possible, a friendly journalist.

There are generally five key stages to a crisis management plan:

Stop or go – Quite rightly the first consideration is often nothing to do with communications per se. Are your staff safe? Should the business stay open? Whatever the decision and the reasons for it, it must be communicated immediately to those people who will be most affected. In the short-term, crisis communications is often less about media management and more about giving staff, partners and customers the information they need.

Assessing the level – The next task, if something has happened that might attract media or public attention, is to assess the level of interest. Is this a particularly newsworthy event that could attract international media interest and many weeks worth of questions from journalists or something of short local human interest? Your assessment will determine how you proceed and the resources you apply. Social media can be both extremely helpful in this regard – giving you immediate access to a range of views on the issue – and potentially very misleading, as anonymity of the commentariat might lead difficulties in assessing the true strength of feeling among a wider, less partial public (for instance).

Key messages – Creating and maintaining a limited number of key messages promotes consistency of message across audiences and channels, whether it is a media release, advertisement, public or staff meeting etc. Contradictory statements weaken an organisation’s position, lead to the perception that it is hiding something and that what it says cannot be believed. Whatever you do say should be clear, show competence and concern. Do not speculate, give as much factual information as possible and never, ever lie.

Response team – Who is your spokesperson, your leader, your media liaison, your note taker, your relatives’ liaison officer, your social media monitor? Do they know their roles, have each other’s contact details? Do other staff, in particular your switchboard operators or receptionists, know who does what?

Debrief – Will you record what worked and what didn’t, who said what and who didn’t? Crises almost always revisit the ‘scene of the crime’, not least on anniversaries. You will only improve if you audit your activity the first time around.

Next time: What happens if you have no plan?

Some useful reading on issues management….

Hainsworth, B.E. (1990). The distribution of advantages and disadvantages. Public Relations Review, 16, 33-39.

Hainsworth, B.E. & Meng, M. (1988). How corporations define issues management. Public Relations Review14(4), 18-30.

Tucker, K & Broom, G. (1993). Managing issues acts as bridge to strategic planning. Public Relations Journal, November.