For businesses or organizations believing they’re in crisis communication mode, there are just two outcomes – success or failure. And the failures seem to take on a life of their own, supported by insatiable conversation, usually involving all the wrong people. We’ve seen these communications failures time and time again: Sports franchises. Investment firms. Auto, food and CPG manufacturers. Restaurant chains.
Knowing what to do in a crisis means first identifying whether you’re really having one. That tops my list of questions you must answer before you do anything.
1. Am I really experiencing a public relations crisis?
A true communications crisis occurs when a signaling event surpasses the scale or capacity of an organization’s normal systems for response. Consider, for example, an unsavory social media conversation about your product or organization. If your public relations team is robust and the chatter is handled routinely, you’re likely not in crisis. Your systems are in place; your response is pre-planned and well tested. The issue you face is one your organization is accustomed to managing alone.
Now consider an explosion at your main manufacturing plant or the arrest of your CEO, either unfolding on live television – events that will trigger responses beyond yours. Investigations will ensue. Victims and their families of whatever went wrong will require answers. And the media will ask tough questions.
While extreme, these examples illustrate a crisis because you no longer own your story. The signaling event has surpassed the scale or capacity of your organization’s normal ability to respond.
2. Can I recover alone or do I need help to handle this?
If the issue has the potential to jeopardize your corporate identity or interrupt your business operations, chances are you and your organization are not prepared to handle the crisis alone.
Protecting an organization’s reputation means telling its story. Silence is not an option. Entering the conversation requires tremendous coordination and communication with shareholders, business partners, suppliers, employees, regulators, the media and, most importantly, your loyal customers.
In-house public relations teams are best at toeing the company line; that’s what they’re paid to do. Requiring paid personnel to step outside an established comfort zone to challenge norms is not a process meant for testing during crisis. Too often, in-house teams have learned to be careful, at least internally – an unhelpful practice when the stakes are as high.
This is not meant to be an indictment of corporate culture, but rather a reality check.
3. Can I rely on our existing crisis communications plan?
Whether your plan is enough to get you through depends on its strength.
- Has your plan been exercised?
- Do you know who will speak for your organization?
- Can you reach them and will they know what to say?
- Have your spokespeople been trained to speak with the media or citizen’s groups?
- Is the issue you face a risk you were aware of?
- Who should your organization be communicating with?
- What will you say?
- How will you break through?
It is here, in the face of these questions, where most organizations pause the planning process. The questions seem too daunting and too difficult to answer, so they aren’t. If this describes your plan – in the face of a crisis – you cannot rely upon your plan and you absolutely require external assistance.