The Great Crisis Communication Lie: A Plan Can’t Anticipate Everything

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By Gerard Braud

It’s been said that the person who says something can’t be done is always right.

Does this adage apply to crisis communication and crisis communications plans?

The Malaysia Airlines crisis and communication challenges with the media and families have many in public relations saying, “This is unprecedented. You can’t prepare for this.”

Pardon me, but that’s bull$h*t.

As a defiant, non-conformist, contrarian, nothing inspires me to do something more than doing something they said couldn’t be done.

If you want to prepare and you are willing to put forth the effort, you can write a crisis communications plan and a library of pre-written news releases that will serve you in any crisis. Public relations people without the expertise, who are unwilling to put forth the effort, take the easy way out by saying, “It can’t be done.”

Here is the backstory of how defiance turned into a process that allowed public relations teams to put an effective crisis communications plan in place in as few as two days

In 1996, I begin doing extensive research on crisis  communications plans and found each plan repeated the same flaws as the ones before it. All conformed to public relations standards of then and today. Being a contrarian, I researched the common communications mistakes made in each crisis. I poured over case studies from when I was a member of the media. I analyzed why spokespeople said dumb things to me in most crises when I was a television reporter. I analyzed why corporations were slow to communicate about each crisis.

Malaysia-BlogThe pain, problems, and predicaments of the communicator and the corporation were scrutinized. Once this was done, I began to work backwards, with the end in mind. Multiple end points were identified, which consisted of the intervals at which a statement would need to be made by a company to the media, a company’s employees, and the stakeholders most affected by the crisis.

From 1996 – 2004, I wrote crisis communications plans for a wide variety of businesses, government agencies, and non-profit organizations. The process often took a year of collaboration, which for me was too long. Dealing with the slow pace of corporate collaboration didn’t fit my personality, despite the large sums of money companies would pay for a year’s worth of work.

In 2004, while spending six months recovering from a near-death-illness, I began looking for the fastest way to deliver a crisis communications plan. I had so many plans written that I was able to condense the crisis communications plan writing process down to two intense days of a group writing retreat. I provided the expertise and base documents, while the public relations team provided a workforce to modify the documents.

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Ten years later, the plan still works in every crisis. Granted, the base crisis communications plan is a living document that undergoes constant modification to incorporate the ever-growing list communications outlets, such as social media.

The reality is, you don’t know how every crisis will unfold. The secret is to understand the intervals at which you must communicate to key audiences. You must make sure your crisis communications plan has a system in place to gather information, confirm information, then release that information.

The biggest breakthrough for me was unlocking the secret to creating a library of pre-written news releases that lives in the addendum of each plan. Starting with the end in mind, I was able to analyze the questions that get asked in every news conference by the media. Based on those questions and a clear understanding of how journalists will

write their news reports, I was able to create a series of statements that include multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank options.

Some of my pre-written news releases have as few as five paragraphs while others have more than 30 paragraphs. Some pre-written news releases are for an event that can be handled with a single press release. Others are three-part releases that can be used to issue advisories before, during, and after an event, such as for an electric company dealing with a winter storm. Still others must exceed three parts, such as an ongoing crisis similar to Malaysia Airlines. These pre-written news releases can usually be edited and released in as few as ten minutes. This is in stark contrast to the typical problem of a public relations person sitting before a blank computer screen and writing from scratch, then facing hours of revisions and hours of delayed communications.

What are the constant realities for the company you work for? The reality for every airline is that they may experience a crash. Virtually every set of scenarios can be broken down into fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice options.

A crisis communications plan can be structured to identify your key audiences, the various ways you must communicate to those audiences, and the frequency of your communications.

Is writing this type of crisis communications plan easy? My original plan took about 1,000 hours to develop – that’s six months. Since then, it has evolved with many more hours.

Today, it is ready to launch and implement in as few as two days. If you would like to know more, call me.

Analyses of case studies in your industry will show you the communications flaws of those who came before you so you can modify your crisis communications plan in such a way that those flaws are eliminated.

If you think it can’t be done, you are correct for yourself. You are not, however, correct for everyone.

Those who are willing to prepare can be prepared and they will communicate effectively when “it” hits the fan. Others, however, will make the same mistakes so many before have made, who have thrown up their hands and said it can’t be done.

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