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Anticipating a Crisis is the Key to Success

Imagine this: It’s a typical Wednesday morning. You’re driving to work when you hear on the traffic report that there’s a big back up near your office because of a fire. As you get closer, you realize that “near your office” really is your office. And that’s when things start racing through your mind. Things like: Was anyone hurt? How did this happen? What does it mean for our customers? Our employees?

And, you can bet you won’t be the only one asking those questions. Likely the media, your customers and your employees will be asking, too.

While most people think of a crisis as a negative event, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, a crisis is something as simple as the unplanned announcement of a company buying another company or the unexpected departure of a key executive.

Whether a negative event or simply an unplanned event, one thing that every crisis has in common is they can happen at any time, and they usually happen without warning. A negative crisis could be anything from a weather-related problem like a power outage because of fallen trees, to a natural or manmade disaster or a human tragedy.

Regardless of the scenario the key to successfully negotiating through a crisis is anticipating it and having a communication plan in place.

Putting a crisis communication plan in place is like the insurance policy you hope you never need. It helps any business to deal with any event that could impact the ongoing and long-term operations or perceptions of their business.

One thing that all good crisis communication plans have in common is an outline of who is on the communication response team, and what their roles and responsibilities are. It clearly identifies who leads the communication effort and who is authorized to speak on behalf of the company.

While not every leader in the company needs to be involved in the response – that will vary by the nature of the crisis – all key leaders need to be aware of the communications plan. While one element is handling communication about the crisis, others are dealing with the crisis itself. Having assigned duties will help keep all of this moving.

Three Basic Types Of Crisis

• An Immediate Crisis, defined as one that occurs without warning (for example, a fire, an earthquake or other event that happens with no warning and no way to predict when it will happen)

• An Emerging Crisis, one that develops over time (this could be an impending hostile takeover, a ban on the product your company makes, a change to a law that directly affects your business, etc.)

• A Sustained Crisis, one that persists over time despite efforts to end it (the BP oil spill a few years back is an example of a sustained crisis)

Crisis Management Planning

The Immediate Crisis (which can become a Sustained Crisis in some instances) is of most concern as there is little or no warning and limited ability to prepare in advance. The Immediate Crisis is the one that can most benefit from a plan being in place, as it can clearly identify what steps have to be taken.

The first step in developing a crisis communication plan is to take a good hard look at your business and identify the things that can go wrong and assess vulnerabilities. If your business is, for example, an oceanfront hotel, what are the likely things that could become a crisis? Chances are there are several things that keep you awake at night thinking about what would happen if… Those are the items to include in your plan.

From here, the next step is to assign priorities based on which vulnerabilities are most urgent and most likely. Now, back to our oceanfront hotel, the likelihood of a tsunami is way down the list, but (if you’re on the east coast) a hurricane could be a distinct possibility.

Once you’ve developed the list of scenarios that are possible – and that list varies by business type – the next step is to think through each scenario and prepare questions and answers that you are likely to be asked during the crisis, and resolutions for each potential crisis scenario.

• Focus on the two most important tasks—what to do and what to say—during the first critical hours following a crisis.

• Develop a strategy to contain and counteract, not react and respond.

One key item during the conduct of a crisis is to control the flow of information. To do this, it is necessary to form a central information bureau. All information will be disseminated from this location through a single spokesperson. This ensures that the organization speaks with one voice and delivers the appropriate messages.

Once you have a plan in place, there are several do’s and don’ts that should be shared with everyone in the company so that if the need arises, everyone is on the same page. Some of these are:

Dos Of Crisis Communication:

• Get your crisis communication plan out and activate it. Call all the people involved together.

• Ensure that all inquiries are answered by a single spokesperson.

• Notify anyone that answers a phone not to provide any information, rather refer the person to the Information Center.

• Establish the Information Center. Make sure it has what it needs to operate effectively.

• Tell the full story, and tell the truth. If discovered, failure to do so can be devastating to the situation.

• Make sure that someone is available 24 hours a day to talk to the media until the crisis has passed.

Don’ts of Crisis Communication:

• Do not speculate or answer questions that require speculation.

• Do not minimize the problem.

• Do not let the story out piecemeal.

• Do not release information if it violates the privacy of individuals.

• Do not say “no comment.” If you can’t answer, say why.

• Do not try to capitalize on the crisis to promote the company or their products.

While you may never use your crisis plan – and wouldn’t that be just fine with everyone – it makes sense to follow the Boy Scout motto and always “Be Prepared.”

What has your experience been with crisis communications? Let us know in the comments below.