Crisis mode

Crisis: Any situation that is threatening or could threaten to harm people or property, seriously interrupt business, damage reputation or negatively impact share value.


Every organization is vulnerable to crises. The days of playing ostrich are gone. You can play, but your stakeholders will not be understanding or forgiving because they have watched what happened with Bridgestone-Firestone, Bill Clinton, Arthur Anderson, Enron, Worldcom, 9-11, The Asian Tsunami Disaster, Hurricane Katrina and Virginia Tech.

Absent preparation, you will take on more damage. When I look at existing “crisis management” plans while conducting a crisis document audit, I often find a failure to address the many communications issues related to crisis and disaster response.

Organizations do not understand that, without adequate communications:

Operational response will break down.

Stakeholders (internal and external) will not know what is happening and quickly become confused, angry, and negatively reactive.

The organization will be perceived as inept, at best, and criminally negligent, at worst.

The basic steps of effective crisis communications are not difficult, but require advance work to minimize damage. The slower the response, the more damage will be incurred.

Identify your crisis team
Identify a small team of senior executives to serve as your organization’s crisis communications team. Ideally, the team will be led by the organization’s CEO, with the firm’s top public relations executive and legal counsel as his or her chief advisers.

If your in-house PR executive does not have sufficient crisis communications expertise, he or she may choose to retain an agency or independent consultant with that specialty. Other team members should be pulled from the organization divisions and include finance, personnel and operations.

Let me say a word about legal counsel. Sometimes, during a crisis, a natural conflict arises between the recommendations of the organization’s legal counsel and those in public relations. While it may be legally prudent not to make a statement, not doing so may land an organization in public relations hot water that is potentially as damaging as any financial or legal ramifications.

Fortunately, more and more legal advisors are becoming aware of this fact and are working in close cooperation with public relations counsel. The importance of this understanding cannot be underestimated. Arthur Anderson lost its case and went out of business due to the judgment rendered by the court of public opinion, not the judgment of a court of law.

Identify spokespersons
Within each team should be individuals who are solely authorized to speak for the organization in times of crisis. The CEO should be one of those people, but not necessarily the primary spokesperson. The fact is that some chief executives are brilliant business people, but not very effective in-person communicators. The decision of who should speak is made after a crisis breaks, but the pool of potential spokespersons should be identified and trained in advance.

Not only are spokespersons needed for media communication, but for all types and forms of communications, internal and external, including on-camera, at a public meeting, at employee meetings, etc.

You don’t want to evaluate and select spokespeople while under fire.

Spokesperson training
Here are a couple quotes from well-intentioned executives that in and of themselves summarize why spokespeople should receive professional training:

“I talked to that nice reporter for over an hour and he didn’t use the most important news about my organization.”

How many of those interviewed by 60 Minutes and 20/20 thought they knew how to talk to the press?

“I’ve done a lot of public speaking. I won’t have any trouble at the public hearing.”

Any who has attended a hostile public hearing understands that it is not about public speaking.

All stakeholders–internal and external–are just as capable of misunderstanding or misinterpreting information about your organization as the media. It is your responsibility to minimize the chances of it happening.Training teaches you to be prepared, to be ready to respond in a way that optimizes the interest and well-being of all stakeholders.

Establish notification systems
There was a time not long ago when the only way to reach someone quickly was by phone or fax, assuming they were available to receive either.

Today, we must have, immediately at hand, the means to reach our internal and external stakeholders using multiple modalities. Many have several phone numbers, more than one email address and can receive SMS (text) messages or faxes. Instant Messenger is also popular. We can send audio and video messages via email. Depending on how tech we choose to be, all of this communication, and more, may be received on or sent by a single device.

It is absolutely essential, pre-crisis, to establish notification systems to rapidly reach your stakeholders using multiple modalities. The Virginia Tech catastrophe, where email was the sole means of alerting students initially, proves that using any single modality can make a crisis worse. Some may not even be on email. Some receive cellphone calls or messages quickly, some do not. If you use more than one modality, the chances are much greater that the message will go through.

For a long time, those of us in crisis management relied on the old- fashioned phone tree and teams of callers to track people down. Today there is technology, offered by multiple vendors and also available for purchase, that can automatically contact all stakeholders in your pre-established database and keep trying to reach them until they confirm (e.g., by pressing a certain number on a phone keypad) that the message has been received. And the beauty of this technology is that it may be triggered by a single call or email.

Identify and know your stakeholders
Who are the internal and external stakeholders that matter to your organization? I consider employees to be your most important audience, because every employee is a PR representative and crisis manager for your organization whether you want them to be or not.

Ultimately, all stakeholders will “spread the word,” so it’s up to you to begin that message on the right foot.

Anticipate crises
If you’re being proactive and preparing for crises, gather your Crisis Communications Team for brainstorming sessions on all the potential scenarios which could occur within your organization.

There are at least two immediate benefits to this exercise: One, you may realize that some situations may be preventable by modifying existing operational methods. Two, it gives pause to think about responses with regard to the best and worst case scenarios.

Better now than under the pressure of a crisis.

Some crises are predictable as they are planned, e.g. laying off employees or making a major acquisition. It is important to gather information before diving into the crisis, or conducting what I call a “vulnerability audit.”

Develop holding statements
While full message development must await the outbreak of an actual crisis, “holding statements”–messages designed for use immediately after a crisis breaks–can be developed in advance to use in a variety of scenarios to which the organization is perceived to be vulnerable. An example of holding statements by a apartment owner with properties hit by a natural disaster– before the organization headquarters has any hard facts–might be: “We have implemented our crisis response plan, which places the highest priority on the health and safety of our guests and staff.” “Our hearts and minds are with those who are in harm’s way, and we hope that they are well. We will be supplying additional information when it is available and posting it on our Website.”

The organization’s Crisis Communications Team should regularly review holding statements to determine if they require revision and/or whether statements for other scenarios should be developed.

Assess the crisis
Reacting without adequate information is the classic –shoot first, ask questions later– scenario in which you could be the primary victim. But if you have completed everything on this list, it becomes a simple matter of the Crisis Communications Team in place and generating the appropriate responses. Assessing the crisis is, therefore, the first crisis communications step you can’t take in advance. But if you have not prepared in advance, your reaction will be delayed by the time it takes your in-house staff or quickly-hired consultants to run through the steps.

As well, a hastily-created crisis communications strategy and team are never as efficient as those planned and rehearsed in advance.

Identify key messages
With holding statements available as a starting point, the Crisis Communications Team must continue developing the crisis-specific messages required for any given situation. The team already knows, categorically, what type of information its stakeholders are looking for. What should those stakeholders know about this crisis?

Keep it simple. Have no more than three main messages for all stakeholders and, as necessary, some audience-specific messages for individual groups of stakeholders.

Ride out the storm
No matter what the crisis, whether good news or bad, no matter how carefully you have prepared and responded, some of your stakeholders will not respond the way you hope. Now what? Take a deep breath. Take an objective look at the reaction. Is it your fault or a unique interpretation?

Would another method of communication change their impression for the better… or worse.

If, after consideration, you think it is still worth more communication, then take your best shot.

It can’t happen to me
When a healthy organization’s CEO or CFO looks at the cost of preparing a crisis communications plan, either by investment of in- house time or retention of an outside professional, it is tempting to fantasize “it can’t happen to me” or “if it happens to me, we can handle it relatively easily.”

Hopefully, that type of ostrich-playing is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Yet I know that thousands of organizations hit by Hurricane Katrina will have, when all is said and done, suffered far more damage than would have occurred with a fully developed crisis communications plan in place. This has also been painfully true for scores of clients I have served over the past 25 years. Even the best crisis management professional is playing catch up–with more damage occurring all the time–when the organization has no crisis communications infrastructure already in place.

The last word for now
Organizations worldwide are finally “getting it” about crisis preparedness, whether crisis communications, disaster response or business continuity. Certainly, demand for advance preparation has increased dramatically in the past half-decade. Ninety-five percent of American organizations remain either completely or significantly under-prepared for crises. Choose to be part of the prepared minority. Your stakeholders may someday thank you.

Author: Jonathan Bernstein