Crisis Communication: Prepare for the Worst
A company can be the most successful, most innovative, highest ranked company in the world, but even those attributes cannot protect it from crisis. Many times a crisis is caused by elements out of a company’s control while other times it is caused by the actions of an internal member. It is important for companies to realize potential warning signs of a crisis, prepare for the worst, and respond to it as soon as possible.
Many leaders are competent in their work, but have never had direct experience with a major work-related crisis. It is hard to have knowledge of what to do in certain situations if the situation has never happened. However, leaders should have the right qualities and understanding to keep the workplace productive. One key factor in managing a crisis is to recognize prodromes, or warning signs. If you are the manager of a popular hamburger joint and your competitor finds out their meat has been infected with E-coli, you should take precautions and test your meat to make sure the same crisis does not happen to you. In another example, managers of transportation services must keep a lookout on weather patterns, as car or bus services may not maneuver properly in heavy rainfall, sleet, or snow. Recognizing warning signs and making preparations for “what if” situations will allow an organization or company to gather useful resources in the event an incident should happen. Once a leader realizes the prodromal stage of a crisis, he or she must realize it may only get worse, and be prepared to face it.
Along with my Leadership class this term, I am also in a Public Relations class that requires us to create an original Crisis Communication Plan for a company. Over the past seven weeks I have read examples of real-world crises and how companies handled them. Ultimately, I have noticed it is those that have effective resources prepared that are able to clear up any confusing details. These companies also remain open with all audiences and media. Handling a crisis is so much more than saying “We have it under control” in a press conference. Consumers will have questions. They will be filled with fear and doubt about their use of the products and the negative outcomes as a result of the crisis. Strategic communicators must know how to communicate with all media channels in a timely manner and with the right messages. Part of the Crisis Communication Plan includes a list of all local television, newspaper, and radio stations. Having this list with a contact name for each one will keep communication open throughout the crisis cleanup.
Not only do companies need a list of media contacts, they also need to assign those responsible for getting in touch with the media. In most cases the CEO is considered the first spokesperson, but in order to keep up with a timeline of events, employees need to be able to send messages to media outlets that will then post them to the public. Keeping a constant flow of information sharing shows that a company is not trying to hide anything, and is trying to maintain trust with its consumers. Perhaps one director will be in charge of contacting newspapers, while another employee is responsible for online postings. As a leader, think about how your company is organized and the best method of sending messages based on each person’s role.
Probably the largest evolution in managing a crisis is the use of social media. Depending on what your crisis entails, certain social media sites may be more useful to your company. Think about the possible crises that can occur in a company and make a list of potential social media posts addressing the issue. Anything about widespread health issues, such as the current Ebola scares, will benefit from videos that allow the faces behind the information to talk directly with viewers. Television news videos or even YouTube videos allow representatives to present information, as well as show specific examples of how to stay safe and healthy (i.e. how to effectively wash hands, a simulation of how germs spread, etc.) Companies should have these videos already made so they can post them faster. For other crises, Facebook statuses or play-by-play tweets may suffice in getting the information to the public. It is helpful to have some statuses already on file for a crisis that is most likely to happen. Companies should update their social media in real time to show they are actively working to resolve a matter as it is happening. On top using social media to inform your audiences, you should also monitor comments and respond to those you deem appropriate based on information you available to share.
During a crisis, audiences are quick to express their opinions online. Two-way communication, once again, is what will keep audiences informed of a company’s efforts. Communicating with the public allows leaders to show their empathy and apologize for whatever has happened. However, it is important to establish procedures for those commenting on your page to avoid a user just continually bashing your company for the sake of stirring up trouble. Company blogs are useful for announcing the acknowledgement of a crisis, and then posting all efforts and important information in detail. It would be beneficial to the company to have someone designated to update blog posts because that would keep all information to the public organized and timely. Posting from your own name may be more useful than the audience hearing it through a third party such as a news source. Audiences will know that a post on the company blog is coming directly from the company, and this will establish trust.
It is important to know that there is no one way to manage a crisis; there is not a strict set of procedures you have to follow step-by-step to achieve success. What works for one company may not work for another. Eddie Obeng explains how rules change as the time changes. Companies simply are not managed the same way they were decades ago. In the event of a crisis, remind the audience why your company is needed. Create messages that show your company cares about its audience. How does your audience benefit from you being around? What makes your product or service unique from others?
Think about how BP, Sandy Hook Elementary, and Johnson&Johnson have all recovered from a crisis. It may have taken a large amount of time, but the leaders and spokespeople behind each organization cared about their audiences. They had to work hard to gain the trust of the public by keeping communication open and sharing inside information.
As long as leaders of a company know their audience, understands what information needs to be shared, and knows the best way to disseminate that information, a company has an advantage of steering itself back to normal routine.