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.