Many crisis communications plans are larded with placeholder statements, which if used in an actual crisis would sound like platitudes or put-offs. Too few crisis plans include the elements of most value in a crisis – the elements that preserve time.
The essence of any crisis is loss of control. The fire is burning. Social media is exploding. The phone won’t stop ringing. Time is not on your side.
The best anyone can do is respond quickly. However, you can only respond quickly if you have prepared to respond quickly, if you have baked ways to preserve time into your crisis communications plan.
Here are some tips on how to preserve time for the crisis in your future:
Have a Crisis Communications Plan
You can’t bake anything into your crisis communications plan if you don’t have one. It’s surprising how many organizations lack a crisis communications plan of any kind, let alone a competent one. In some cases, the task has been sloughed off or postponed until “later when we have more time.” In reality, the time before a crisis is the most precious and plentiful asset you have to deal with an eventual and probably inevitable crisis.
Anticipate Your Crisis Scenarios
A nonprofit doesn’t have to worry about an exploding railcar and a railroad doesn’t have to worry about child neglect. That’s why crisis plans need to be anchored to crisis scenarios that an organization might realistically experience. The best way to anticipate relevant crisis scenarios is to identify them through a comprehensive, candid issues audit. Brainstorming about all the bad things that could happen may not seem like a great way to spend part of a day, but it can be a very productive use of your time. Acknowledging your vulnerabilities is the first step toward preserving your time in dealing with them.
Prioritize Your Vulnerabilities
After you identify your potential crisis scenarios, you should rank them by probability and impact. That enables you to focus on the most likely crisis scenarios with the highest impact. It avoids wasting time expending energy for unlikely and low-impact scenarios.
Mitigate Your Vulnerabilities
A byproduct of identifying crisis scenarios and sorting them by priority is flagging actions that can mitigate a potential crisis. Making a high-consequence, high-impact vulnerability less likely through proactive action is the greatest time saver of all.
Know Your Go-To Resources
When a particular crisis hits, it helps to know where to look for the answers you need. The go-to resources for a financial crisis will be vastly different than for an environmental spill. Who do you turn to internally? Are there external resources that can be tapped? Is there data that is relevant and useful? Knowing who to call and how to reach them can save valuable time and prevent crippling confusion during the first hours of a crisis.
Stock Up on Crisis Tools
Just as you prepare for a natural disaster by stowing away basic necessities, do the same for your crisis moment. Video or infographic explanations of safety and security procedures can be brand-savers if they are ready to go when a crisis occurs. They can be stored on a ghost website that can be activated in a crisis moment. A critical part of the crisis planning process is anticipating what tools you may need in a specific crisis, then developing them so they can be accessed in a flash. Something as simple a B-roll video can be invaluable by giving eager television reporters with a deadline something to use on air in place of what they can salvage off the Internet or from someone’s smartphone.
Designate a Crisis Team Leader
Name somebody as your crisis team leader, so you don’t have to fumble around when a crisis occurs assigning someone the task. A crisis team leader can become the internal advocate for preparing and updating a crisis plan that is relevant and realistic. The crisis team leader’s job description should include learning about crisis response and applying that knowledge to the vulnerabilities and potential crisis scenarios of their organization. They should be ready to step into action when a crisis strikes, saving time through their advance preparation.
Maintain Current Contact List
Outdated contact information is frequent time-wasting toe stub in a crisis. Phone numbers and email addresses change, so you need to update your contact list frequently. The crisis team leader should make sure the contact list is complete, including external numbers such as the local hospital emergency department, emergency response personnel and key contractors.
Conduct Crisis Response Drills
There is no better way to test your crisis plan than to conduct a drill. A dry run will reveal weaknesses and overlooked details in your plan, which can be fixed and save time in an actual crisis. Drills should include, when possible, emergency responders that would be called into an action during a real crisis. In cases involving hazardous substances, you want emergency response personnel to know what they are dealing with – and how to deal with it safely. Fresh eyes can point out problems, such as a shutoff switch located inside instead of outside of a room where hazardous materials are processed. Safety-proofing operations can save time by minimizing potentially catastrophic effects of a crisis.
Make Your War Room War-Ready
Not all crises require a war room, but a large crisis does. This is the place where actions are coordinated – from addressing the cause of the crisis to fielding calls from affected parties and the news media. The war room should be big enough for the designated crisis team to function there, have Internet access and one or more landlines to handle calls that come through the organization’s phone system. The rise of smartphones and laptops make war room preparation a lot easier, but not entirely foolproof. Think about what you would need and ensure it is available in the war room. Update your planning frequently. For example, Facetime and Skype offer opportunities to give live interviews or feeds without leaving your own desk.
Create Your Own Alert System
Speedy response demands real-time channels of communications. Twitter remains the most reliable way to keep eager and attentive audiences informed. However, you can’t just turn on Twitter. You have to cultivate a following, especially among news reporters and editors so they receive your tweet updates. It is easier to direct new listeners to your Twitter feed if it is established. If you have built a Twitter following, you will understand how the platform works.
Utilizing a channel such as Twitter can save time by avoiding having to make one-on-one follow-up contacts or organizing press briefings. The direct message feature of Twitter also allows personalized contact.
Train You Designated Spokespersons
Whether it’s the crisis team leader or someone else in an organization, including the CEO, make sure they have undergone media training. Effective media training includes learning how to craft and deliver a key message and performing in a simulated interview with reporters. The best media training is customized to an organization’s circumstances and crisis scenarios. Even staff members – and especially the CEO – who may have experience dealing with the media should undergo media training to hone their skills and recognize the tension that can exist in interviews involving a crisis. Conducting media training before a crisis hits is time well preserved.
There is a lot of work to do to make sure you are ready for a crisis. None of the work involves dreaming up vanilla-flavored placeholder statements. Use your time wisely to prepare wisely. The time it takes will be the invaluable time you save when a crisis occurs.
[CFM Strategic Communications is one of the leading crisis counselors in the Pacific Northwest with experience in assisting clients prepare crisis plans, test their effectiveness, make spokespersons media-ready and counsel on internal and external responses during a crisis. Contact us to see how we can help you.]
Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.