By Gerard Braud
Navigating the waters of a crisis requires a good crisis communication plan before the waters ever begin to rise. Clear sunny day planning, long before your darkest day, is the secret. In today’s social media filled world, this has never been more true.
Sadly, in our social media world some public relations people expect to Tweet their way out of a crisis or repair damage using Facebook. Neither is true. While “shiny and new” social media can be part of an effect communications strategy, you must first have the foundation of tried and true media relations, crisis communications, employee communications and stakeholder communications.
Here is a sure fire 5 step approach that must be your foundation.
Step 1: Vulnerability assessment
Before “it” hits the fan, you have to identify everything that could go wrong, including potential sudden crises and smoldering crises. Hire a facilitator to take your organization through the process of a deep examination of the things that could go wrong that would damage the reputation and revenues of the company.
Step 2: Write your pre-written news releases, web posts, and e-mails
Perhaps you’ve heard the expression, “when you are up to your ass in alligators it is hard to think about draining the swamp.” This applies to crisis communications. One of the biggest mistakes public relations people make is that as the crisis is unfolding, they open a blank document on their computer and start writing a news release, which then goes through hours of unnecessary re-writes before it is release. Consider this: on a clear sunny day you should write as many of these potential news releases as possible, leaving blanks that you’ll fill in when you know the details of the actual event. These documents can be pre-approved by leaders, speeding up your ability to release them to the public. I’ve facilitated many crisis communication writing retreats that produced more than 150 pre-written news releases in one day. That kind of productivity rocks!
Step 3: Write your crisis communications plan
Very few documents that public relations people refer to as a crisis communication plan would pass my test for what a plan should be. Most are worthless 6 to 12 page documents that state standard operating procedure and serve absolutely no purpose on the day of your crisis. Yet to be fair, this is what most PR people were taught in school or at some PR seminar. Frustrated by what I kept finding, I invented something new.
My approach is to write a document that is intended to be read and followed during the crisis. It dictates specific, sequential tasks in a very fast moving time frame. It captures all of the perfect behaviors of the most senior communicator, yet is so easy to follow than any one who can read can execute the plan flawlessly. I’ve invested about 2,500 hours of development in my base plan, which is about 50 pages long, which I am now able to customize for my clients during a single afternoon workshop.
Step 4: Annual media training for a crisis
Despite all of the buzz about social media, holding a live news conference within both the first and second hour of a crisis is vital if the media are standing at your door. Many organizations damage their revenues and reputations when untrained spokespeople say dumb things during a crisis.
It is important for every potential spokesperson to recognize that media training is not a bucket list item that you do once in life. Talking to the media is a skill that requires regular practice. I recommend media training for all spokespeople at least once a year, with an expert coach. Then, before every media interview, in-house staff should do a fast refresher course.
Think of it this way – the best athletes achieve great success because they practice often and partner with a great coach. Great spokespeople practice often and partner with a great coach, protecting their reputation and revenues through what they say, and just importantly, what they don’t say.
Step 5: An annual crisis communications drill
Realistic crisis communications drills are the best way to test your communications team and the decision making process of your leaders. A drill once a year allows colleagues to establish trust and good working relationships. A crisis drill allows ample time for leaders to pause and discuss decisions they must make during a real crisis. This helps them avoid decision paralysis during a crisis.
Your crisis communications drill should include at least two mock news conferences during the drill. Hire mock media and never use real media. Your facilitator must write a complicated, yet realistic scenario. It must include a likely crisis, plus all of the social media, employee and media buzz that would surround a real crisis. The facilitator should also hire a team of people to flood your phone lines with constant calls, replicating the calls you would receive from media, customers, and concerned citizens in a real crisis.
All of this takes time. None of it is easy or fast. But, it is much easier to prepare on a clear sunny day than to struggle and fail on your darkest day. Your reputation and revenues depend upon it.
About the author: Gerard Braud (Jared Bro) has helped leaders and organizations on 5 continents write their crisis communications plans, using his one-of-a-kind writing retreat that completes one years worth of work in 2 days. He is regarded as an expert in media training and crisis communications plans and is the author of Don’t Talk to the Media Until… 29 Secrets You Need to Know Before You Open Your Mouth to a Reporter. Contact him at www.braudcommunications.com or firstname.lastname@example.org