Gerard’s Day 1 Tip for 2009 – Dealing with the crisis

Welcome to the New Year. Generally, the New Year is a time of great optimism, but heading into 2009 there is a lot of uncertainty. It’s going to be especially challenging for a lot of people in public relations, so I’ve put together this short 5 part series to provide some guidance to communications professionals for 2009.

So here is our agenda for the week… On Monday we’ll talk about how you should help your organization deal with the impending financial crisis and crisis communications. Tuesday we’ll talk about how you should discuss your economic challenges with the media and employees. On Wordsmith Wednesday we’ll discuss the role writing should play in your 2009 communications. Thursday we’ll discuss what role, if any, Social Media should play in your communications, and Friday we’ll stay with the Social Media Topic as we explore training for executives who might participate in Social Media.

Let’s jump into our first lesson…

The economic crisis is, by its very name, a crisis. That means in 2009 you need to be more prepared than ever for crisis communications. The proper way to deal with a crisis is to have a crisis communications plan. To properly define the term, this is not your emergency operations plan, which is sometimes generically referred to as a crisis plan. And, this is not your business continuity plan. This is a plan specifically designed to communicate with the media, employees and key stakeholders. It is sometimes used in conjunction with the emergency operations plan and the business continuity plan, but it is often used when neither of the other plans are needed.

I’ve studied crisis communications extensively since 1994 and one of the things that I’ve learned is that most crisis communications plans are grossly flawed. In fact, I’d say that most are written with fatal flaws. So the first thing you need to do is to identify whether you first have a plan, and if you have a plan, you need to determine if your plan is flawed. If it is, you need to correct those flaws, before you truly need it. I always say that the best time to write a crisis communications plan is on a clear sunny day when you have clarity of thought and are not enveloped by emotions associated with a real crisis.

Here are five simple test questions to help you determine if your plan is perfect or it is flawed. You might want to get a pen and pencil to take notes

Question 1, if a crisis breaks out right now, whether it is a fire, explosion, shooting, layoffs or an executive arrested for embezzling, can you pick up your crisis communications plan and safely navigate the crisis from start to finish because it tells you exactly what to do page by page, and it is so simple to use that anyone who can read can execute it flawlessly? If you answered yes, great. If you answered no, you’ve discovered your first fatal flaw. Most crisis communications plans that I’ve reviewed over the years state a lot of policy, but give few if any true step-by-step directives. Essentially,  they are PR 101 rulebooks. On the day of the crisis, no one will benefit by picking up the plan and reading it. They don’t tell you exactly what to do or when to do it; they give you no real time tables and directives. Essentially, they are skeletons with no meat on them. Ultimately, they require you, the communications person, to wing it.

Question 2, does your plan require that it be executed by a highly skilled, veteran communicator or can it be executed by anyone who can read and follow directions? If your plan has to have a professional communicator executing it, you have a flaw in the plan. Consider this: if you, the professional communicator, are unable to manage the communications, who else can do it and do it flawlessly? Your plan must consider the real possibility that you could be out of town, unavailable or incapacitated by the actual crisis. Make sure your plan is simple enough, yet thorough enough that people from other departments can take your place if necessary.

Question 3, does you crisis communications plan tell you exactly what information to gather and what questions to ask, so you can continue to execute the plan? If you answered yes, excellent. If you answered no, you need to determine what questions needed to be asked to gather critical information for every crisis. Too many crisis communications plans that I’ve reviewed simply contain a directive that says, gather the facts about what happened. Reality is that in the heat of battle, and the throes and emotions of a crisis, you may forget to ask some critical questions if you don’t think them through and write them out on a clear, sunny day when you have clarity of thought.

Question 4, does your plan give you the names and contact information for exactly the right people you need to call to assemble a crisis management team? If you answered no, you need to add them. If you answered yes, how many names are listed? It always amazes me when I review a plan that says contact the following, then it lists the titles of 20 people without giving you a single name or phone number or e-mail address. Most plans used by universities and schools have this critical flaw. They have only titles listed with no names or contact information. To begin with, the number of people that you need to call to assemble a crisis management team should be limited to only 4 or 5 people. Some people depend upon a laminate card in their wallet or purse to give them contact information and others simply keep those numbers in their cell phone.  Both of these are good back-ups, but a true plan needs to have these in print in the plan.

Question 5, does your plan give you pre-written, pre-approved statements that you can distribute to the media and employees simultaneously within one hour or less? If you answered yes, that’s outstanding. If you answered no, you need to make it a priority to acquire such a plan immediately. Most plans contain one basic beginner template. If you’d like a free copy of one of these, you can download a free copy at www.crisiscommunicationsplans.com. Keep in mind when you download this template that it is only one page of a larger, 50 page crisis communications plan. In the plans I write, this is the template I use to communicate in the first hour of a sudden emergency or crisis, when information is still sketchy. But for the second hour of a crisis, in my plans, I write a series of more detailed templates that use a lot of bullet-pointed lists, multiple choice answers and fill-in-the-blanks. The number of templates are so extensive, that if you can identify 100 different potential crises that your organization might face, then I go so far as to write 100 different pre-approved templates. A flaw with many plans is that they still require you to write a news release or employee message from scratch with each crisis. Then whatever you write has to go through executive and legal review, slowing the communications process. Then they’ll ask you to make changes. All of this slows down the communications process. A pre-written, pre-approved template may have 75%-95% of what you need to say already written. You simply add the who, what, when, where, why and how and your statement is ready to go in record time. And again, the time to write these templates is on a clear, sunny day.

If you answered yes to all five of these questions, it sounds like you may have a perfect plan and you are ready for 2009. If you answered no to any of these, then you need to make revisions.

My guess is one of the most predictable things about 2009 is that you will face a crisis that requires serious communications. If you take steps now, at the beginning of the year to write, revise or re-write a plan that works when you need it, you’ll remove a lot of stress from your life and guarantee effective, rapid communications to your employees and the media when it is needed most.

You can find additional free resources on the following 3 sites.

www.braudcommunications.com

www.crisiscommunicationsplans.com

www.schoolcrisisplan.com

You can also call me at 985-624-9976 to ask questions.

In tomorrow’s lesson, we’ll discuss why media training and presentation training will be so critical in 2009.

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